Here's an image we're not likely to see: Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), respectively the Majority and Minority Leaders, holding a joint press conference to condemn threats and acts of violence against members of Congress and the federal government as a whole. Nor are we likely to see a similar press conference at which the podium is shared by Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Minority Leader, John Boehner (R-OH). To push the point further, nor are we likely to witness a prominent Republican condemning Tea Party signs that use racist or threatening words against Democrats or a prominent Democrat condemning MoveOn.org for vicious online attacks on Republicans. Why are such events are so hard to imagine?
The cynic (realist, if you prefer) will respond that politics is just not played like that. But the fact that many of us are disgusted by the bitterness that has overtaken political life proves that it was not always this way. There was a time when political wars were not marked by such nasty and dangerous incivility.
We hear words, but we remember and store them through images. So, thank you Steny Hoyer (D-MD) for saying that "Our democracy is about differing and debate and animated debate and passionate debate. But it is not about violence." And thank you John Boehner for saying that "violence and threats are unacceptable. That's not the American way." But those are just words. If opposing politicians can't even agree to appear together to condemn what they all view as un-American, they should not be surprised if some of their followers wink at the words and go on about their merry mayhem ways.
It's actually worse than that. Once their singular condemnations of violence were uttered, politicians quickly returned to accusing their opponents for using their own such statements to seek political advantage. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) criticized Rep Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Democratic National Committee Chair Tim Kaine for "dangerously fanning the flames by suggesting these incidents be used as a political weapon." Not to be outmaneuvered, Van Hollen shot back that Republican leaders were just "trying to stoke the anger." Translated: "If I condemn political violence I am speaking as a true American. If you do it, you're just trying to win an election."
Nastiness in American politics is not new, and the nation has survived worse. George Washington lamented that: "I had no conception that Parties would, or even could go, the length I have been witness to..." But we should not take for granted that, in the end, this descent from differences to disgust with each other is easily reversible once we all calm down. The social fabric that unites us as a people - that we witnessed briefly after 9/11 - has been woven for over 200 years. But even treasured tapestries can fade, unravel, or be consumed by fire.
We have expressions in our culture for what we expect of leaders: "walk the talk," "match words and deeds," "put your money where your mouth is," "watch what they do not just what they say." Until we start to see in behavior what they say to the cameras about the importance of "civil" political wars, trust in American political institutions will continue to suffer. In a February 2010 Harris Poll, only eight percent of respondents said they had "a great deal of confidence" in those running Congress, the lowest of any national institution and the same percentage as achieved by those who run Wall Street. In contrast, military leaders instilled a great deal of confidence from 59 percent of Americans, the highest in the survey. Maybe the motto of "duty, honor, country" has something to offer those on Capitol Hill.