Gerson: Obama Has No Right to Complain About the Lack of Civility

According to Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, America is on its way to becoming “a nation with the responsibilities of a superpower and the politics of a banana republic.”  We have become so polarized that civility seems impossible.

If I got everyone on my Facebook wall together for a political conversation there is a good chance that Wrestlemania 29 might break out.  (OK–I had to look up that Wrestlemania reference.  Thank you Wikipedia).  Things are that bad.

I had a nice conversation with some of the folks in attendance at a lecture I gave on this subject last weekend at St. Peter’s United Methodist Church in Ocean City.  We were all pretty skeptical about a sudden cease-fire in the culture wars, but I still held out hope that something along these lines was possible. Perhaps I am tilting at windmills.  I have been known to do this kind of thing.

How can we expect a nation to move forward when we have a Republican member of the House of Representatives (Allen West from Florida) claiming that “about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party” are “members of the Communist Party.”  Or his Democratic colleague in the Florida delegation, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, claiming that all Republicans “want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws.”

Obama admits that he has failed to fix the divisive culture of Washington.  He had hoped that he would be able to “change the atmosphere here in Washington to reflect the decency and common sense of ordinary people.” It has not panned out.  And those of you who think that Obama is to blame for this nasty political climate, let’s remember that things were not much better when George W. Bush was in office.  In fact, they were not much better in the 1790s either.  (Sometimes we need a little history lesson.  It gives us perspective).

But according to Gerson, Obama, at least for now, is part of the problem. His attacks on Mitt Romney in recent weeks have been vicious, especially coming from a president who laments the fact that he has not made Washington a more civil and decent place.

This ad is politically effective, and the message might even be true, but it does nothing to fix the culture of American politics:

If Obama really wants to change the culture of Washington he will have to rise above the kind of negative campaigning that has defined American politics since before the Civil War.  Of course, if history is any barometer, this is not going to happen.  Obama is a product of a corrupt electoral system just like every other national political candidate.  In order to survive politically he must do what he has to do to win re-election.  Any attempt to transcend this system would be an act of morality and political bravery.  But it will also result in electoral losses. 

Gerson is right when he says that “political polarization is the product of democracy that undermines democracy.”