Following the final presidential debate on Monday Oct. 22, political pundit Ann Coulter tweeted that she highly approved of “Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard,” referring derogatorily to President Barack Obama. This is simply a recent escalation of what has been building for more than a decade: a severe lack of respect for the office of the presidency.
Coulter’s statement comes less than a week after Tagg Romney, son of former Gov. Mitt Romney, commented that he wanted to “take a swing” at the president after watching the second presidential debate on Oct. 16.
Tagg Romney has since apologized, yet these personalized and uncivil attacks on the president have become common fare in today’s political environment. Any semblance of prestige or respect attributed to the presidency seems to have disappeared.
These sorts of remarks make headlines all too often and show a significant failure to separate the person and professional from the politician. Say what you will about the president’s policies or political aptitude – criticism of that sort is encouraged and necessary for a functional democracy. But to call the president, a man holding a degree from Harvard Law School, a “retard” is nothing short of crude, demeaning and appalling.
Disrespect for the presidency, however, does not originate with our current president. Former President George W. Bush was the target of personal attacks much in the same vein as Obama. How many of those outraged and disgusted at Coulter’s comment were the ones, six years ago, lambasting Bush’s “stupidity?” How many of the liberals who swarmed on Tagg Romney were the ones, eight years ago, Googling “George Bush idiot jokes”?
It is symptomatic of the combative and degrading political culture present in the 21st century. Both sides are to blame; the first 12 years of the century have seen two significantly polarized presidents. One cannot definitively distinguish between liberals and conservatives – both are guilty of the coarse, frequently vulgar rhetoric that personalizes attacks on the presidency.
When effective political discourse is null and void, when any policy discussion or legislative debate ends in gridlock, criticisms of the president have nowhere to turn but toward the personal – and inherent in these attacks, which are against the person holding office rather than the political entity, is an undercurrent of incivility in modern political commentary.
With politics growing ever more into an “us-versus-them” mentality, schoolyard name-calling is inevitable, albeit unfortunate and enormously depressing.
Yes, 150 years ago, things may have been even more uncivil: Congressmen were beating and caning each other inside the Capitol Building. But 150 years ago, human beings were being bought and sold. Let us not compare ourselves to that standard.
Political commentary should have in it a sense of integrity. It should come from and cause a discussion of value. It should not feature insults better left to eighth-graders.