Recently, I unashamedly eavesdropped on a woman in Georgetown (not Sally Quinn) who was expounding (like Sally Quinn) on the long-lost virtues of the Washington Cocktail Party, where Republicans would clink glasses with Democrats, lions would lie down with lambs and policy differences would be ironed out far beyond the prying eyes of any but the most sycophantic press somewhere between one’s third glass of Scotch and waking up rice-cake-tongued and unremembering. This, apparently, is how American Democracy is supposed to work — and supposedly did, until the invention of the airplane and the foolish idea that one’s representative to the federal government should interact with his or her constituents and spend some semblance of time in the area she or he purports to represent.
And while it’s hard to imagine that legitimate policy differences were once simply papered over with the labels of expensive single malts in the company of the nation’s wealthy and elite to present a united front to the common people (or that it would’ve been a good thing if they had been), it is hard to resist the characterization that the norm in politics has become more personally nasty than in previous years.
While the vitriol the anti-Clintonites of the nineties struck most Americans as more-than-a-little-personally-obsessed with the White House’s occupants, one can hardly throw a stone, watch a cable news show or read anything on the Internet without getting the feeling that personal attacks are more important to some people than policy disagreements, or even getting one’s self or one’s political compatriots elected to office.
To some people, personal attacks are the new political advocacy, and policy issues and even for whom to vote (or for whom they think others should vote) take a backseat to elementary school food fights when there’s someone to hate on. And with so many more people able to engage in political discussions with strangers than ever before, there’s plenty of more people to hate on.
No longer are conservatives limited to engaging in wild theories about Vince Foster’s suicide and Kathleen Willey’s poor departed cats: they had Shirley Sherrod and Dave Weigel and George Soros and any one of a number of bloggers, reporters and even Twitter-users. And that’s not to say liberals don’t have their own windmills-that-belong-on-a-putt-putt-course at which to tilt, either: from James O’Keefe to Jonathan Krohn to the Koch brothers to anyone that someone decides is moderately influential (whatever that means), political disagreements quickly turn into personal attacks that one would hardly expect to occur outside of a particularly ugly divorce case.
But is that a reason to go back to some supposedly halcyon days of yore when the differences between Democrats and Republicans could be measured in fingers of gin and Americans all voted for whatever D.C.- or Virginia-resident claimed to represent them? Our elected officials don’t socialize together any more than most Americans seemingly socialize with people who don’t share their political beliefs. In a sense, they represent us perhaps too well in that way. And if we want them to be better, perhaps we ought to be better, too.
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