One of the greatest Senators in American history has died. Not everyone agreed with him. But except for the most ideological crazies, everyone who knew him respected his humanity, his energy, his longevity, and his love of country. A few decades ago, critics would have the basic decency to shut up while the flags flew at half mast. Today, they simply have no sense of shame.
There has always been a private ethical code which people have obeyed because of personal beliefs or community pressure or the disadvantage to not complying. Self-regulation has always been essential in politics, business, and private behavior, because it’s impossible to legislate everything that is desirable in society.
Culture constantly changes, and the private ethical code inevitably allows behavior that used to be taboo—like disrespect toward schoolteachers, douche ads on television, and undisguised greed in corporate boardrooms.
In politics, the big change in culture occurred with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Something snapped. Self-regulation fell. To the new brand of conservatives, prior social norms—ideas of honor—were for suckers.
But the worst political thugs of the Reagan administration seem like refined gentlemen and ladies compared to Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, and their ilk. The vulgar leaders of the current right wing have, quite naturally, brought out the worst in the conservative fringe—gun waving, physical threats and violence, shouting down democratic debate, and cold-blooded lies about politicians and policies.
All that is just prelude to my point. Can the leaders of the right wing noise machine suspend their uncouth, loutish, boorish, childish behavior for just a few days? Have they no conception of respect for anyone who disagrees with their politics? Have they no shame?
This is not our nation’s darkest hour, but the fanatic fringe reminds me of it.
Fifty years ago there was a movement led by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthyism was a brutal, calculated, personal attack on individuals who disagreed with McCarthy’s politics. Truth became irrelevant. The bigger the lie, the more effective it seemed to be. And the media—by and large—played along.
It was a great moment in American history when McCarthy was challenged on nationwide television by the Special Counsel for the United States Army, Joseph Nye Welch. On June 9, 1954, McCarthy attacked a young lawyer in Welch’s firm because he had once belonged to the National Lawyers Guild. (Personal note—my mother was a member at that time.) Welch responded:
Until this moment, Senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or your recklessness... Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?
This televised exchange helped finally bring down McCarthy and end that black era in our nation’s history.
Right now, America needs a few brave, articulate people in the mold of Joseph Welch to shame the purveyors of hate. To work, democracy needs a level of decency. Congress, which was designed to compromise, requires a measure of good faith. Partisans, if they are to have any beneficial effect, must at least understand propriety.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and author of the book, “Framing the Future: How Progressive Values Can Win Elections and Influence People” .