Wednesday, July 11, 2012


The other day my friends on Facebook started one of those conversations about how awful are the negative political ads these days.  In order to refute this (as far as I know, American political discourse has always been pretty rough, starting with the first election after George Washington), I Googled "political insults" and came up with Rosemarie Ostler's new book, Slinging Mud:  Rude Nicknames, Scurrilous Slogans, and Insulting Slang from Two Centuries of American Politics.  I may have to get that, or at least borrow from the library.

I also found an article by Ms. Ostler on HuffPo entitled 12 Classic Political Insults, from which I absolutely must share a neologism from the 1890s:  snollygostersA "snollygoster" is "a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnancy."

I have to confess, I thought of Mitt Romney. 

But my real point is:  politics today isn't any nastier than it ever was.  It's just louder because of 24-hour cable news and the Internet.

1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting subject.

    A lot of commentary in the media over the last decade about how combative and rude political debate has become in this country. I think the mood of political discussion and sentiment has become significantly "roughened" though it's unclear whether the electorate had developed a bigger appetite for it, or it has been seduced into this earnestness by cynical political polemicists and public relations people.

    In the 1950's, political debates tended to be much more respectful in public. Witness the Kennedy-Nixon debates, in which the two candidates sat politely, and without much emotion. as they were asked questions in an atmosphere of reasonable polite discussion. By the Reagan era, candidates had resorted to sniping and snide sarcasm.

    Today the Right has morphed into full-blown attack mode. The gloves have come off, and no one even expects sensible assertions, well-thought-out platforms, or measured reasoned arguments. In the 1950's, we didn't have the shock-jock radio stooges, or the avalanche of internet assault. People in Nebraska and Idaho once used to worry about the weather and the price of beans; now they argue about "coastal elites" who want to turn their young men into queers. That's a big difference, and I think it reflects the degree to which people's attention has been shifted away from immediate regional concerns, to "big issue" diversions designed to focus their sentiments on matters that over-ride their true interests. Folks in Michigan ought to realize how hostile the Republican agenda is to their welfare. The Republicans wanted the big three auto makers to go belly up. And yet, today, Romney is running neck and neck in the industrial midlands. Go figure. Do people even think sensibly about their own interests?

    I think politicians always were cynical about what went on "behind the scenes" but in public, things used to be gentler. That's a reflection of our no-holds-barred public sphere, where anything goes, and the more outrageous it gets, the bigger the audience share. In the days of Boss Tweed, the man on the street didn't really know what was happening, unless his local smut-sheet tore off the protective cover. There's very little today which is "private." Kennedy used to screw women in a White House ante-room, and most of the press corps knew it, but this was never reported to the public, because that was the code of privacy in those days. Today, Clinton enjoys a little dalliance under the desk, and heaven and earth are turned upsidedown. Americans apparently couldn't be told what their handsome young man was really like in private, but ironically (30 years later) they came to understand that being an effective President might involve the very sort of sinful randy behavior that heroes actually engage in when they're not running the world. We seem much more religious in our preoccupations these days, but also more tolerant. Then, people worried about how "religious" their President might be, but today, they seem more worried about how "un-religious" he is. God Bless America. Dubya claimed that Jesus was his hero, but that example apparently led him to believe that pre-emptive wars and torture and making the rich richer were all very humble, righteous acts.

    So some things have changed.