Commentary: Politics and civility

Jan 25, 2013

While Toledo, just south of Michigan’s border, is part of Ohio, it shouldn’t be. Geographically and economically, it is more part of the Michigan economy, right down to the Jeep plant.
 Its 300,000 people tend to share our state’s demographics and the same range of difficulties Michigan manufacturing cities face as they attempt to transition to a twenty-first century economy.

Last week I spent some time with the mayor of Toledo, Mike Bell, who for many years was the fire chief. Four years ago, he got elected by running strictly as an independent -- unbossed and unbowed. He takes stands on issues, but doesn’t endorse partisan candidates. Though he’s been a longtime state official, he’s never held elected office before.

I asked him what had been the biggest surprise for him in his first term as mayor. When I’ve asked other politicians that, they’ve often said that the job turned out to be far more complex than they’d imagined. But not Mayor Bell. The shocker for him is the lack of civility, courtesy and respect people show officials these days.

The other day, somebody came up to him and launched a torrent of abuse, addressing him by his first name and calling him everything except a child of god. Bell seemed to be more amazed than offended. The mayor is strong and physically fit and was many pounds heavier than his would-be tormentor.

“Why would you come up to someone you really don’t know, somebody a whole lot bigger than you, and do that?” he wondered. When did it become acceptable to go up to the people we elect to lead us, and attack them personally? Frankly, I am not sure. I know that the prestige of the presidency, and by implication that of all public officials, was incredibly damaged by Vietnam and Watergate. And the scandals, wars and recessions since haven’t helped matters much.

But Mike Bell is a generally popular mayor. The city economy has improved slightly on his watch, and his administration has suffered no major scandals. But still, even he gets treated like a punching bag.

One of my jobs is to deal with reader complaints for a newspaper. Some of them are reasonable, well-thought out, and accurate. But I also get a torrent of hate-filled expletives for all manner of reasons, some completely irrational, as well as lots of unprintabler abuse aimed at the President.

What accounts for this is somewhat of a mystery, though not completely. The internet allows us to vent in the coarsest, nastiest and most irresponsible manner, without disclosing who we are.

We also are pretty frustrated as a people these days. Our economy may never again be what it was. Our bipolarized politics leave many people with the sense that they’ve been cut out of the process, and that any real progress is virtually impossible.

I frankly find this scary, and essentially unhelpful. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be harsh critics of corruption, incompetence and obstruction. But demonizing people, especially in person, doesn’t do anyone any good. In the final analysis, as a character in the comic strip Doonesbury said many years ago, “the world needs grownups”, maybe now, most of all. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Tags: