Lucifer and the age of insults in politics

Politics in America has never really been for the thin-skinned, but always a rather rambunctious and disrespectful game.

Mark Twain’s view of politicians in summary: “Suppose you were an idiot,” he said. “And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” This has long been more than a minority view in our country.

And the vitriol has often invoked God. When Lincoln was elected, for example, the whole of the South convulsed in anger. And in Alabama, militiamen wore ribbons that read, “Resistance to Lincoln is obedience to God,” invoking the divine in a manner quite foreboding.

It belongs to the idiom of our democratic discourse, these insults and extremes, a little libel here and a little slander there and a little bit of God added every now and then for emphasis. And at one level, I think it belongs quite properly in political discourse and that it’s good for democracy. Ours is a political tradition, the strength of which is a healthy irreverence, a good liberal and democratic irreverence for the pretensions of traditions and institutions. Like satire, we need to remain alert to the tyrannies that can sometimes creep in among us.

And so in that sense I’m not bothered at all by former House Speaker John Boehner calling Sen. Ted Cruz “Lucifer.” It was actually kind of funny. And it cleverly expressed in one word what many think of this particular presidential candidate, whose faults and qualities have been overlooked because of our focus upon his reality TV rival. Boehner’s barb is simply part of the tradition, and considering this present cartoonish campaign season we are enduring, par for the course.

But in another sense, I am disturbed by the insult. I’m disturbed because it seems part of a political discourse, a political process, and even a political community turned toxic. I’m disturbed because it seems symptomatic of what W.H. Auden called years ago the “Age of Anxiety.”

Boehner’s insult is disturbing because it was spoken within a society in schism, a sensitive society fractured by culture wars and identity politics, all of which have eaten away at the common good. It’s precisely the sort of talk we don’t need now. It’s reckless and simply not conducive to the sort of reconciliation we could use.

We need better politicians than we have. We need women and men in office who rise above the rhetoric of conflict, who, instead of denouncing the “establishment” and “Washington,” instead of sowing fear within what could be the beautiful diversity of our nation, speak again as our leaders once did: “With malice toward none, with charity toward all … to bind up our nation’s wounds.” This is the sort of politician and the sort of politics we need.

Vaclav Havel, the former playwright president of the Czech Republic, wrote about politics and civility: “Time and time again I have been persuaded that a huge potential of goodwill is slumbering within our society.” And he said it belonged to those in politics to discover and awaken that goodwill. This is what we need, politicians more about inspiration than insults.

But it appears we’re going to have to wait some time for that, sadly. Perhaps the next election. Or the one after that.

Father Joshua J. Whitfield is the parochial vicar and director of faith formation and education at St. Rita Catholic Church in Dallas. Readers may email him at jwhitfield@stritaparish.net. He wrote this for the Dallas Morning News.