Sadly, civility in political discourse is becoming quaint. A thing of the past. Which is bad news for everyone.

For a democratic process to work, a degree of public faith in the outcome is required. The “losers” of a democratic vote need to know that the “winners” will govern for them too. All parties need to appreciate that “what unites us, is greater than what divides us.”

I think the lowered tone of modern political discourse undermines that. Since I have resolved to abstain from Australian political commentary, I will (as is my wont) discuss American politics instead.

The “noble lie” — or at least the harmless

As the US presidential campaign enters its final weeks, many people are understandably surprised that Romney has leapt ahead in the polls. It’s understandable because only three weeks weeks, most media pundits had declared the race won by Obama, while the rest differed only by insisting the race was still competitive. Nobody called it for Romney. But as I said six weeks ago, short of an unprecedented national crisis, the incumbent is never going to win this election.

Most media pundits will not, of course, admit that election outcomes are dependent on slow-moving variables like job security and optimism. That’s boring. So the pundits instead perpetuate the myth of a “horse race” which, depending on each toss and turn of the sprint, could go either way.

Four weeks ago, the pundits produced a slew of articles demonstrating why debates don’t matter, and Romney had lost this thing. Since the first debate, Romney’s success and Obama’s troubles have been attributed to that debate, and suddenly debates are very important indeed!

This sort of mythical coverage keeps the election interesting: people tune into the news channels, and they buy the daily newspapers. “If the Denver debate turned the campaign on its head, maybe the Florida debate might move the polls another way. Or maybe some other event, on any given day, might win the election for one candidate or other other. So you better stay tuned into the news cycle!”

I don’t mind the horse race coverage. In fact, I love it! It does make election coverage more interesting. I savour the pundits’ wild theories, even though I know that what they write is — to quote Vice-President Biden — “malarkey!” But at least the horse-race coverage is entertaining malarkey. It’s intended to entertain, and it does entertain. (Well, it entertains West Wing geeks like me, anyway.)

But there’s a more malicious malarkey that has seeped into every part of American political commentary (and, increasingly, Australian political commentary). It’s no less fanciful, but it’s nasty.

The much more damaging lie

A friend e-mailed me an example of such malarkey, which was published in Friday’s Age. Here’s what Chloe Angyal wrote about Governor Romney’s performance in the second debate. It relates to his answer to a question about gun control:

The United States is possibly about to grant its first black president a second term in office. And yet, in the nearly four years since he was elected, coded racism has become a part of the national conversation like never before . . . Romney stood up in front of a television audience of 60 million people and said that gun violence in America happens because poor black single women are bad mothers. He said it as he stood beside the black son of a single mother.

Here’s what Romney actually said in his answer to the gun control question:

. . But let me mention another thing. And that is parents. We need moms and dads, helping to raise kids. Wherever possible the benefit of having two parents in the home, and that’s not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that’s a great idea. Because if there’s a two parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically. The opportunities that the child will be able to achieve increase dramatically. So we can make changes in the way our culture works to help bring people away from violence and give them opportunity, and bring them in the American system.

Moments later, President Obama said something similar:

I think that one area we agree on is the important of parents and the importance of schools, because I do believe that if our young people have opportunity, then they are less likely to engage in these kinds of violent acts.

So Romney and Obama actually agree about this. Happy families break the poverty cycle, and less poverty means less violent crime.

But the partisan meme that “Romney is a racist and this proves it” needs to ignore what Obama said and what Romney said. That doesn’t matter. What does matter is what Romney didn’t say, but actually did say, in “Republican speak” — also known as “the dog whistle racism of the American right.”

This, I think, is an example of ideological moralism, which blinds its proponents. Ideological moralism prevents proponents from recognising that opposing views might have redeeming qualities. It blinds them from recognising that other people can hold those opposing views for noble reasons. And it blinds them from recognising that their own views are not perfect.

But worst of all, ideological moralism demonises opponents. So in this case, Republicans are actually closet racists who speak in coded language. They’re anti-choice misogynists, who pretend to be “pro-life.” They’re unrestrained capitalists, who are indifferent to the common good.

This isn’t the exclusive domain of the left. I used that example only because it’s timely. Examples from the right also abound. Democrats are unpatriotic for opposing wars. They’re socialists, who will suppress liberty at every opportunity. They’re Manchurian candidates, who are systematically bankrupting the U.S. Treasury.

I don’t know The Age’s Chloe Angyal; I have no reason to think that she is cynical or insincere. But the more charitable judgement is worse: she actually believes what she writes. She really thinks the Republican candidates are racist. And misogynist. And that is what is most damaging about this sort of partisan polemic. Not that it’s employed, but that it’s believed. Believing these sorts of myths is bad for social cohesion.

If a “misogynist and racist” really does win the White House this year, why wouldn’t liberals revolt against a broken system? Or if a “socialist plant” wins the last election he’ll ever face, why wouldn’t conservatives revolt before he destroys the republic? Perhaps that’s taking it to extremes. so how about this? Why would you work with or even trust your neighbour, if they voted for and support someone who is diabolically evil?

The Al Smith Dinner: a refreshing dose of civility

In the past few months, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, has copped a high degree of criticism for inviting President Obama to this year’s Al Smith Dinner. Cardinal Dolan was bucking a precedent. Twice before, his predecessors have snubbed presidential candidates over the neuralgic issue of abortion. This time round, the stakes are even higher. A case can be made — a strong case I think — that the Obama Administration has impinged on Catholics’ freedom of conscience.

But Cardinal Dolan was undaunted. He insisted on inviting both presidential candidates in the name of civility:

The purpose of the Al Smith Dinner is to show both our country and our Church at their best: people of faith gathered in an evening of friendship, civility, and patriotism, to help those in need, not to endorse either candidate. Those who started the dinner sixty-seven years ago believed that you can accomplish a lot more by inviting folks of different political loyalties to an uplifting evening, rather than in closing the door to them.

This is in fact only one of four reasons for his decision. It’s worth reading the entirety of his recent blog post on the subject. But in light of the article published in Friday’s Age, which unfortunately exemplifies a spirit of the times, I think this reason by itself is justification enough.

Civility has its limits of course. Throughout the 1930s, Pope Pius XI rudely and routinely snubbed Adolf Hitler. But in case anyone needs reminding — and sadly, some do! — Barack Obama isn’t Adolf Hitler.

Judging from the addresses each candidates delivered, I think Cardinal Dolan’s hope for a bit of civility was entirely vindicated. It’s worth watching the two 10 minutes address in full. They’re very entertaining.

(Well, they’re entertaining to West Wing geeks like me, anyway.)

And coz this is a religious blog, but also because he’s funny too, here are Cardinal Dolan’s closing remarks: