There can be no doubt that the media reward conflict, not consensus building. “If it bleeds, it leads” in the news business. But blaming the media is an alibi, not a valid excuse. There can be no doubt some of the new forms of social media encourage arms races, rewarding the most vicious and sarcastic voices in public and private life with followers and celebrity. But in the earlier era of radio and television, there were demagogues such as Louisiana’s Huey P. Long and Wisconsin’s Joe McCarthy. Their style of politics was rejected by the American elite of their generation. “Go along to get along” was the mantra of Sam Rayburn, the House Speaker for most of the time between 1940 and 1961. “Let us reason together” was the motto of Lyndon Baines Johnson as Senate majority leader and president.
Today, it seems, the motto of our governing elite is “Do unto others before they do unto you.”
Will the pendulum swing back? It may take a new generation to restore common courtesy and decency to American politics once again. Those of us who are privileged to work in education know that many younger Americans still view politics as civic duty, not civil war. They understand that public service is all about a calling, not about calling out. If the older generation fails to restore civility to public life, we can take comfort in the fact that the next generation may once again treat public office with the respect it deserves.