WASHINGTON, Nov. 24 (UPI) -- "I would like things to be more civil around here," said Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah following a meeting of the lame-duck Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 14. Hatch, who will become the new committee chairman in January, is expressing the hope of many Americans even as he works against the grain of recent cultural norms.
Except for brief periods, American politics has always been a cauldron for rough and tumble conflicts among regional, religious, economic, and ideological interest groups. Major newspapers in the 19th Century made no pretense of being objective but rather served partisan clients without apologies.
Even in northern newspapers, editorial cartoons in the 1860s portrayed President Abraham Lincoln either as a saintly force for unity or as an incompetent baboon. There was little tradition of balanced reporting or editorial nuance.
But there has also been a subdued countervailing tradition in national politics that was developed to a high art form by some of our most mature and gifted civic leaders and elder statesmen. That tradition can best be summed up by the philosophy that "reasonable people of good will may have reasonable differences."
These mature leaders of the mid-20th Century, sobered by the trial of national survival in World War II, seldom tried to impugn the motives of those who differed with them just because opponents had different ideas. They also were architects of the idea that "partisan politics stops at the water's edge" so that America could present a united front to the world.
Gradually over the last three decades, the very idea of civility in national politics has been undermined almost to the vanishing point. The Senate Judiciary Committee has just been one of the more visible flash points along the highly charged partisan front lines. Some of this conflict is quite natural because judges serve for life and their philosophical perspective matters.
However, there comes a point when the excessive rancor of partisan or ideological conflict mutates beyond healthy debate to a poisonous atmosphere that is destructive of democratic government.
For example, prior to 20 years ago, few senators interpreted their duty to "advise and consent" to executive branch nominations as a mandate to impose a litmus test of positions on otherwise well-qualified nominees. But in recent years, some senators have routinely asserted their prerogative to oppose a nominee solely on ideological grounds as distinct from other qualifications.
While evidence of this trend has surfaced in both parties when they were in opposition to a president, Democratic senators have been relatively more aggressive and more successful in opposing the nominees of Republican presidents for largely ideological reasons.
The reply of senators who embrace this new prerogative of ideological hold and veto is that anyone who is nominated for philosophical reasons is fair game to be opposed for the same reasons. There may be some logic in their position up to a point.
But their position also leads by extension to the idea that a president should never be allowed to confirm a nominee who agrees with his philosophy as long as the opposition has either a majority in the Senate, or enough votes to mount a filibuster. At least in part, there is evidence to suggest that voters rejected this idea in some of the midterm election contests where the judicial backlog became an issue.
Proponents of the ideological blockade strategy would apparently prefer to see hundreds of judicial vacancies rather than approve judges who agree with the president. They might say they are trying to force the president to nominate judges more to their liking, but that strategy seldom works and the high rate of vacancies is still harmful to the administration of justice.
Beyond Capitol Hill, the evidence of harm that comes from an uncivil society is easy to see from editorial page offices to the picket lines of protesters.
Among the groups that benefit from uncivil debate are special interest organizations that depend on energizing core donors to a fever pitch for the next battle on the legislative horizon.
Few direct mail-copywriters are ever fired for creating fundraising appeals that bring in money. They realize from experience that a successful fund appeal must advocate black and white positions and must have a villain to rail against. Naturally its not enough just to say the villain is mistaken, but the villain must also be a crazed enemy of all that is good and decent.
Donors seldom respond to a letter that says our position is the only correct one, but the other guys may have a point. They do respond to letters that say if you don't donate today, evil policies will prevail, and the Republic as we know it will disappear. Sadly too many voters respond to negative attack ads in campaigns to make it likely that this source of uncivil pollution will dry up soon.
Civil debate and carefully crafted positions are seldom rewarded in politics except through the plaudits of a tiny handful of widely respected opinion leaders. There are too few grownups inside the beltway to fashion an infrastructure of civility that might successfully counter the pollution of the fundraisers.
The road back to civility will be long and difficult. That's one reason that President George W. Bush was wise to impose a ban on gloating by GOP campaigners on the day after an unexpected and major Republican win in midterm elections. The president is trying to set an example in word and deed that advocates of a more civil debate can repair to. A few elder statesmen among Democrats in Congress also aspire to the return of civility but their voices are too often lost in the general din of the battlefield.
Americans deserve more civility in politics because the basic legitimacy of democratic government hinges upon our respect for one another even when, and especially when, we advocate opposing policies.
(Mark Q. Rhoads is a former Illinois State Senator and a former editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times.)
(Outside View commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in issues of public interest.)