Squabbles, spats and brats; Chronicling the demise of civility in civil discourse

Idrees Kahloon of Lexington is a sophomore at Harvard University and a Herald-Leader intern.
Idrees Kahloon of Lexington is a sophomore at Harvard University and a Herald-Leader intern. Lexington Herald-Leader

Predictably, the U.S. Senate congratulated itself on dodging another self-manufactured crisis over filibusters of President Barack Obama's executive nominees last week. We got to call this one the "nuclear option," the most melodramatic possible description of a parliamentary procedure in which Majority Leader Harry Reid threatened to limit the rampant filibustering through a rule change.

The mythical Senate comity crumbled quicker than a milk-drenched cookie. Sen. Mitch McConnell warned that Reid "is going to be remembered as the worst leader of the Senate ever" and later tweeted an image of Reid's tombstone with the unflattering epitaph, "Killed the Senate."

Democrats circumvented him and cut a deal with a faction of Republicans led by Sen. John McCain that let seven languishing nominees come up for confirmation votes. Although he tried to obstruct the deal, was then excluded from it and later voted against it, McConnell still had the magnanimity to take credit for it.

Any not-too-heavily-sedated observer can see that our political discourse is in a sorry state.

Civility was never really expected of civilians, but it was once a desirable trait in politics. Now compromise is a four-letter-word, and politicians feel entitled to not just their own opinions, but also their own facts.

The tenuous relationship between politicians and truth is partly our fault. The era of connectivity is a misnomer — it's the era of cloistering: A time where you can curate only your favorite Twitter streams, view partisan spin doctors masquerading as pundits on your favorite TV poli-tainment, and replace The New York Times or Wall Street Journal with the Drudge Report or the Huffington Post.

The partisan bubble has become the Berlin Wall.

Swim through the murky world of Internet comments (at your own psychiatric peril) and you will quickly be overwhelmed with sectarian squabbling that rarely rises above the level of ad hominem. Likewise, any opinion challenging a politician's worldview is glibly dismissed and buried under an avalanche of epithets — try to think of the last McConnell opponent who was not cast as a radical, left-wing, liberal, coal-warring socialist.

The untruths, mischaracterizations and skulduggery of powerful politicians go unchallenged by an unadversarial media, the watchdog that voluntarily removed its own teeth long ago, remaining anodyne for fear of losing access.

The frustrating superficiality of most news outlets drives the popularity of The Daily Show and other programs that satirize the entire unsavory enterprise, often relying solely on the politicians' own words.

As the number of swing districts in the House has dwindled, political discourse has swung from conciliation into internecine bickering. Gerrymandered districts like Texas' second, which reminds one of a jagged staircase, are a small part of the problem. But when a loudly pro-life Rep. Scott DesJarlais is re-elected despite released tapes of him urging his mistress to get an abortion, it's apparent that one can say almost anything if situated in the right district. Huge swaths of the country are uncontested and compromise is not rewarded but often punished by primary challengers.

But Republicans, once oriented towards national progress, are now animated by animus.

Disrupting the tedious stringing of bumperplate slogans, buzzwords and talking points that we've come to tolerate as political speech seems impossible when McConnell, occupying a position once held by Lyndon Johnson and Bob Dole, can release a bizarre autotuned campaign ad mocking Alison Lundergan Grimes by rhyming, a favorite technique of toddlers.

Harry Reid was able to threaten a nuclear option to stop some of the nonsense — but the rest of us are not as lucky.

Reach Idrees Kahloon at ikahloon@herald-leader.com or 231-3235.