Steve's Blog: The hostility of political debate

Steve Scaffidi

I’ve spent quite a bit of radio airtime lately talking about incivility and political discourse in this great country of ours. It’s an interesting topic, one which not only fires up the phone and text lines at WTMJ, but also raises the question of the historical significance of this bitter debate between the right and left.

It’s not new, nor does it even come close to the hostility or intensity of political debate in the early days of this country.

Today (July 11) is the anniversary of one of the most famous political dustups in the history of the United States.

On this date in 1804, Aaron Burr, the sitting Vice President of the United States, dueled Alexander Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury. Burr mortally wounded Hamilton, Hamilton dying the next day from his wounds.

Their argument? Hamilton actively campaigned against Burr, thwarting his runs for President in 1801 and Governor of New York in 1804.

Let me break it down for you. The Vice President of the United States shot and killed his political opponent. In a duel with pistols! Now, that’s incivility times 1,000.

Of course, it would eventually provide the background and storyline for one of the greatest Broadway shows of all time, Hamilton, which continues to delight audiences with its musical interpretation of this famous political rivalry. I’m guessing Hamilton and Burr never guessed that would happen.

As of late, say the last decade or so, we’ve witnessed an increase in anger, rage, hostility, intolerance (pick a descriptor) when it comes to politics. And certainly, social media has echoed and encouraged this breakdown.

But to this point it’s primarily been a war of words. With the notable exception of the attack on several Republican lawyers who were shot in the act of playing baseball, nearly taking the life of Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise.

Minus that attempt at political assassination, we’re no where near the anger of the 1960’s, which saw mass protests and riots across the country, along with the shooting deaths of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby Kennedy, and civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King.

Are we in the early stages of a return to that level of political rage and violence? We could be.

And, to be honest, the party currently out of the leadership position in Washington, seems to be encouraging a level of anger and resistance that could echo those earlier times in our nation’s history. Google Maxine Waters for a taste of what that sounds like.

But short of an outright call to arms, there is hope, at least from some of us who talk about politics for a living, that cooler heads will prevail.

We celebrated the 4th of July last week, a holiday that, once you get past the parades and fireworks, should inspire us all to practice civility, patriotism, and honest civil discourse. Of course, that’s much easier said than done.

I’ve described the Summer of 2018 as the Summer of Protests. The kindling of unrest is there, lurking and waiting for a spark.

Given it’s the season for fireworks, let’s hope it doesn’t ignite and set us on a course that echoes our nation’s occasionally violent past.

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