Before this week ends, I want to point out one thing from last week: the anniversary of Senate Democrats’ defeat of Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The New York Times’ Joe Nocera — always worth reading, but no one’s idea of a right-winger — made this observation:
The Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics. For years afterward, conservatives seethed at the “systematic demonization” of Bork, recalls Clint Bolick, a longtime conservative legal activist. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution coined the angry verb “to bork,” which meant to destroy a nominee by whatever means necessary. When Republicans borked the Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright less than two years later, there wasn’t a trace of remorse, not after what the Democrats had done to Bork. The anger between Democrats and Republicans, the unwillingness to work together, the profound mistrust — the line from Bork to today’s ugly politics is a straight one.
(Links original. NB: The editorial to which Nocera referred was by the Atlanta Journal, not the combined Sunday AJC, and our archives credit Jeff Dickerson — yes, that Jeff Dickerson — as the author.)
There were ugly moments in politics before, and there would be ugly moments in politics afterward. I don’t think Nocera intends to excuse ugly Republican behavior that followed the Bork nomination (I recommend reading his whole column) and nor do I.
But as a moment when character assassination became a substitute for arguing against philosophical differences, long before Hillary Clinton lamented the “politics of personal destruction,” it should be recalled as a moment of national shame. Whatever aisle-crossing Ted Kennedy did later in his Senate career is undermined by his role in creating the art of borking. It is no coincidence that Joe Biden, who as Senate Judiciary chairman in 1987 helped lead the charge against Bork, now as vice president still has the audacity to hint that Republicans will bear the blame for future murders and rapes if they don’t agree to President Obama’s latest stimulus package; leopards don’t change their spots.
The sliming by both parties of presidential appointees is de rigueur. The scapegoating of Sarah Palin for the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, because she used the kind of rhetoric that is part and parcel of contemporary politics, may well be another moment where this tendency was escalated. Mild cases of borking even take place within parties now; see the swapping of insults by Rick Perry (”you don’t have a heart”) and Mitt Romney (”it means you have…a brain”) over one another’s immigration stances. There is a growing list of beliefs one is not allowed to challenge without being labeled a “denier,” a clear reference to those who deny that the Holocaust took place.
And it’s not just politicians: The likelihood that someone in an online discussion will eventually invoke Hitler is so high that it has a name, Godwin’s Law. No wonder we the people keep electing the borkers.
This doesn’t only matter for the words people use. It feeds a tribalism that discourages people from challenging their ideological fellow-travelers on particular issues, lest they give “the other side” an opening to undermine their broader agenda. It causes people to say things they might not actually believe, simply because they know how “their side” is supposed to answer the question. And it leads to sloppy arguments, because people don’t bother to learn the thinking behind, and nuances of, the stances they adopt (e.g., “all government spending boosts demand and thus the economy,” or “all tax cuts produce higher revenues”).
Anyone who wonders why Americans lack faith in our institutions, and despair that there’s no solution in sight, would do well to remember what happened to Robert Bork some 24 years ago.
– By Kyle Wingfield