As we are exiting the season of “peace on earth — goodwill toward men” and entering yet another legislative and political season, it seems appropriate to examine why contemporary political discourse has become so divisive and shrill.
Of course, when has political discussion been unifying and open-minded? Fair enough, but it certainly seems that political discussion has become more mean-spirited today than it was in previous decades. Although I offer no solution beyond a general saccharine resolution that we should all be nicer to one another, I think there are at least three sources of today’s extreme acrimony.
First, there has been a glacial but important change in the proper role of passion in public discourse. James Madison, Adam Smith and Jane Austen all thought “passions” — or in modern parlance, emotions — were an essential part of human nature. They also believed public displays of passions ought to be restrained. Self-command was a cardinal virtue. It obliged individuals to mute their own feelings in public.