Much has been made of the decline in political politeness over the last 18 months, first in the Republican primary, then in the Brexit referendum campaign, and culminating in the coarseness of the final stages of the Presidential election, with words being uttered in the debates between Trump and Clinton that were unimaginable on that stage just a few years ago. Personal insults and crude language anecdotally seem to have become much more prominent in the media’s coverage of the political cycle of the last 18 months. More data analysis of whether reality meets perception will be invaluable to future historians, but if the common judgement is correct, why has this happened now?
The new millennium has been celebrated as a time of unprecedented progress for equal rights, society in the West has never been more open, inclusive and accepting of difference. At least until the last two years. It is tempting to see a rise in intolerance, if it has happened, as a boomerang reaction. Social norms have continually evolved, and devolved, depending on your point of view. Study Roman literature, or the plays of Shakespeare, or 18th century satire and compare it with the supposedly repressed novels and plays of the 19th and early 20th centuries and you can see ‘acceptable’ public standards changing over time. Just as the natural pendulum of politics can explain the switch from Clinton to Bush to Obama to Trump, so the tone of political argument undergoes temporal shifts.
The extent to which individuals shape history or are shaped by it, long a favourite historical debate, also comes into this question. If one individual has enabled the change in political language it is Donald Trump. He has broken every rule in the modern political book, made more gaffes than any politician in recent times had ever survived. He attacked his political opponents in personal and crude ways, from ‘crooked Hillary’ to ‘little Marco’ to ‘lyin’ Ted’, which have not historically helped aspiring candidates fortunes. Trump was frequently blamed for rewriting the playbook during the brexit referendum and de-facto encouraging the unpleasant tone of much of the debate. Trump’s political opponents have matched his language with their own, read much of the so-called liberal media over the last year and you would be forgiven for mistaking the Donald for the leader of North Korea. Seen through the Guardian prism it is almost impossible to comprehend how he could have won. Such harsh and often personal criticisms of Trump and his family have not convinced Trump supporters to switch their allegiances yet and contribute to the general negative climate around US politics.
Trump is undoubtedly a product of his time, a real estate businessman turned reality TV star turned social media phenomenon. Reality TV came into being at the same time as the internet, and pre-dated mass social media by a few years, it shifted the norms of behaviour viewers were exposed to. Social media and political comment space took this to new levels, anyone visiting these websites is easily and quickly exposed to thousands of pages of vitriolic and offensive language. Many news websites have shut down or heavily controlled their comments sections due to the abuse authors are subject to. Rude behaviour is so prevalent and normal on the internet that it begs the question whether anything has really changed in society in the last two years, or has the online world just finally taken over the real world?
Anyone familiar with 19th century British politics will have read about its dark side. Candidates were often subject to verbal and sometimes physical abuse at election times. Hustings and rallies were frequently violent alcohol infused affairs, until electoral law reforms in the 1880s, it was common to buy votes by ‘treating’ electors to alcohol or other bribes. Brash candidates were normal in this earthier period, early women MPs were shocked by the standard of behaviour amongst their male colleagues in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and even today at times. So maybe there was a politer period in politics in the later 20th century, or perhaps nothing has really changed at all, which is not to say we should not continually strive to improve the quality and decency of politics and political debate. In the end politics reflects wider humanity in all its forms, behaviour on the streets reflected in the corridors of power, so before we rush to blame politicians, and any one politician, for the poor quality of debate we need to look in the mirror at ourselves.