December 6, 2011


REVIEW: of Marcus Daniel. Scandal and Civility: Journalism and the Birth of American Democracy (Joseph M. Adelman, 10/03/11, H-Net)

Observers of contemporary journalism will readily note that character-based politics are as prevalent in the United States as jeremiads bemoaning the sorry state of such personalized political discourse. We should be talking about the issues, commentators insist, rather than about the "distractions" of politicians' personal lives. Marcus Daniel, a professor of history at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, has seen this story before in his work on the political journalism of the early American Republic, and challenges the idea that these laments--and the personalized politics they decry--are unique to the modern media climate.

In Scandal & Civility, Daniel aims to show how what he calls the "politics of character" played a crucial role in the formation of political discourse in the first decade of the U.S. government under the Constitution. In so doing, he hopes to enlighten discussions of contemporary politics that promote a golden age narrative, part of the "Founders Chic" that David Waldstreicher identified nearly ten years ago, in which the Founding Fathers, uniquely in American history, debated issues civilly and respectfully with a moral code superior to that of our own time. Not so fast, argues Daniel: "political life in the postrevolutionary United States," he writes, "was tempestuous, fiercely partisan, and highly personal" (p. 5). As evidence, Daniel suggests that we look to those who produced and disseminated political news: the printers and editors of U.S. newspapers.

The biggest difference is that they took more joy in their political savagery.  The attempt to remove personal attacks from politics also, necessarily, removes the humor.

Left unsaid is that our politics is more civil precisely because we have achieved such broad consensus on the issues.  The stakes of the fight are too low for much genuine bitterness to creep in.

Posted by at December 6, 2011 5:55 AM

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