Can the American Political System Tolerate Nastiness?

Political Discourse in America

While there is a lot of talk about “civility” in political debates, being civil has never been a part of the US political system.

Many liberal writers and broadcasters believe the recent growth of the Tea Party movement is a reflection of how uncivil some Americans are becoming. Democrats complain about the abusive language and the nasty signage displayed by Tea Party protesters and politicians in both political parties have claimed to have received death threats. While many of these claims have yet to be proven, the people on both sides of this movement are becoming more polarized. To some extent, this is how Americans define what they believe and determine the direction they want to take in the future. Of course, anyone threatening to kill someone should be found and brought to justice.

Nevertheless, the US version of political discourse does bring out some strong language. Extremists tend to label their opponents and call them names. On the Tea Party side there are some who believe President Obama was not born in the United States and should not be president. Many call him a Socialist and worse. On the liberal side, there is comedian Bill Maher, among others, who equates Tea Party protests as Klan rallies. Others simply accuse many of them of being racist. Is this kind of name calling new to American political discourse?

History of Political Discourse

It is not necessary to go too far back in history to find nastiness in our political system. President George W. Bush was called many names and accused of lying about Iraq. The signs about him were certainly nasty. But, Bush was not the first to experience nastiness. During the Viet Nam war, President Lyndon Johnson would hear many protesters chant, “Hey hey LBJ, how many kids have you killed today.” Those were nasty times too.

But, it might be argued that nastiness was worse in the early days of US history. During the campaign of 1800, Thomas Jefferson helped fund a Scottish “scandalmonger” named James Callender to write a print campaign against President John Adams. It made that election one of the nastiest in history.

A Nasty Political Election

James Callendar was a writer who attacked the British Constitution and fled Scotland in 1793 to avoid charges of sedition. He went to Philadelphia and began writing for the city’s very partisan press.

By the 1800 presidential election, Callendar had already ruined the career of Alexander Hamilton by publishing news of Hamilton’s adulterous affair with a married woman. In 1799, Jefferson funded the Republican Richmond Examiner which employed Callendar who began attacking Adams.

He accused the president of being “mentally deranged,” conspiring to crown himself king, and grooming his son, John Quincy to be heir to the throne. In one of his writings, Callendar wrote that Adams was a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Nasty stuff for 1800 America.

Lincoln Was Not Sparred Either

Journalism historian Edwin Emery wrote: “Few presidents suffered more from editorial abuse than Lincoln.” Emery wrote that Lincoln was falsely accused of drawing his salary in gold bars and paying his soldiers in deflated dollars. He was accused of making important decision while drunk and granting pardons to secure votes. And these were only a small number of the criticisms directed at the president.

Nevertheless, Lincoln today is considered one of the best presidents in American history – second only, perhaps, to George Washington. History has a habit of putting things in perspective.

Looking at Our Political System in a Historical Context

Despite the heated rhetoric on both sides of any issue in this country, somehow Americans put those issues aside and pass the gauntlet of power to the next set of leaders. It is part of the American tradition.

That does not mean, however, that political discourse ends. It doesn’t. People will continue to ratchet up debates of the future. The US political system has a history of tolerating it better than any other form of government in the world.


  1. With the Hammer of Truth: James Thomson Callender and America’s Early National Heroes by Michael Durey, University Press of Virginia, 1990
  2. Lincoln: Profiles in Power by Richard J. Carwardine, Longman Publishers, 2003