On Respectful Political Discourse

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

February 9, 2018

(Speech to the League of Women Voters of Ripon on Febuary 8.)

I’d like to thank the League of Women Voters of Ripon for inviting me here tonight, and everyone for coming here, despite the snow in the forecast.


I love the League of Women Voters! You do amazing work at the grassroots for our democracy here in Wisconsin, and I’ve spoken to many of your local chapters -- from Ashland to Sturgeon Bay, from La Crosse all the way down to Whitewater and points in between.

Your members are key players in our democracy. You do the work locally, and that’s the most important place to do it. It’s better than coming to Madison to protest or Washington, D.C. Because you can interact with your neighbors and colleagues, with the people you worship with and exercise with. They know you, and if they like you and respect you as a person, they are more likely to consider your views, even if they don’t agree with you on them. And that’s how political change begins.

The League of Women Voters in Wisconsin is blessed with terrific statewide leaders.

Andrea Kaminski did such a wonderful job for you for so many years!

And Erin Grunze is a terrific successor. I worked with Erin at The Progressive magazine for many years, and she’s as upstanding a person as you’ll ever want to meet, with tremendous energy and skill, to boot.

So it’s an honor to be with you, and thanks for inviting me to speak on this topic of respectful political dialogue, which is a new one for me and a little tricky, which makes it more fun.

I feel strongly about the need for respectful political dialogue across our differences.

I believe in discussion.

I believe in debate.

I believe in the fair exchange of ideas.

I’m an old John Stuart Mill guy: I believe the truth will ultimately prevail.

It’s important, in this day and age especially, that we’re able to converse, respectfully, with people who don’t agree with us.

And that’s what I try to do.

If you’ve heard me on Wisconsin Public Radio on their Friday Week in Review show, you know that I try to carry on a political debate respectfully.

I don’t call my conservative counterpoint names.

I don’t belittle him or her.

I try to score points by being better prepared, faster on my feet, and by appealing not only to logic and facts, but to our highest values as Americans.

If it’s just a food fight, I don’t want any part of it.

That’s why I stopped going on the O’Reilly Factor—that unlamented old show on Fox.

I like arenas where there is a fair give and take. And that certainly wasn’t the venue. He had more food to throw.

I search out for places where we can have civil dialogue.

That’s why I like WPR.

That’s why I like writing op-eds for newspapers like the Journal Sentinel or the State Journal.

There are just too few places these days where you can engage in respectful political dialogue and debate.

Too often, we’re in our own worlds.

People on the right can watch Fox and Friends in the morning, listen to Rush Limbaugh during the day, and watch Hannity at night and then start all over again the next morning.

And if you’re on the left, you can watch Amy Goodman on Democracy Now in the morning, listen to Progressive Radio during the day, read The Nation when you get home, and watch Rachel Maddow on MSNBC at night and start all over again the next morning.

And if you live in Madison and work at the many progressive nonprofits there and live on the Isthmus, you might not run into anyone in a week’s time who disagrees with you!

This is unhealthy.

It doesn’t build empathy.

It doesn’t build intellectual muscle.

And it’s bad politics : Because the essence of politics is the effort to persuade your fellow citizens that your view of what is just and right and beautiful and fair is the way to go.

So if you’re only talking to people like yourself, you’re not getting the job done.

And you’re not going to have a clue about how to persuade those who don’t already agree with you.

Similarly, being rude or vulgar is bad politics.

You don’t persuade anyone on the other side by yelling at them.

You don’t persuade anyone on the other side by swearing at them.

You can look at my Facebook posts from the first day I joined, and I can assure you that you won’t find me ever swearing at anyone, and I post a lot, and I often post when I’m upset about something. But I try to do it respectfully.

But this is where it gets tricky.

How do you define disrespectful?

I, for one, don’t believe it’s disrespectful to sit down during the State of the Union, for instance, and not to clap when the President wants you to clap.

And I certainly don’t think that’s treasonous behavior. For Trump to suggest that it is shows that he has no appreciation for our First Amendment whatsoever.

On the other hand, interrupting President Obama when he was giving the State of the Union Speech by yelling out “Liar” I would say is disrespectful.

And it’s not because I prefer Obama to Trump that I say that. It’s that the traditional norms of political discourse don’t include heckling the President if you’re a member of Congress.

And as Obama liked to say, “We can disagree without being disagreeable.”

That makes sense to me; that’s how I like to roll, too.

By disrespectful, I tend to mean rude or vulgar.

This obviously is a subjective thing, and you might define “disrespectful” differently than I do. There’s no hard and fast rule.

But let me make things trickier still.

My problem is that I am so disgusted by a lot of what I see Gov. Walker and Majority Leader Fitzgerald and Speaker Vos doing that I feel the moral obligation to convey that in strong terms.

How do I do that without being disrespectful?

And I’m so disgusted and – frankly – petrified by what I see Donald Trump doing that I feel the moral obligation to convey that in the strongest terms possible. I’m scared that he’s going to start a nuclear war. I’m scared that he’s going to destroy our democracy.

How do I do that without being disrespectful?

And even more to the point, when is the compulsion to be “respectful” an abdication of my moral obligation to tell it like it is and to try to arouse my fellow citizens to the crisis at hand?

So how do I wrestle with this problem?

Well, I still don’t swear – unless I’m on the tennis court or at the poker table.

And I’m still not personally rude.

For instance, if I see Speaker Vos or Majority Leader Fitzgerald, I don’t scream at them. A couple weeks ago, I saw Vos in his car outside the Capitol, and I waved. And a few days later, I saw Fitzgerald at the Tornado Club, the best steakhouse in Wisconsin, and I was standing just five feet away from him, and I bit my tongue.

But I don’t mince my words when I write about them or when I speak in public about them.

For instance, I’m outraged by their vendetta against anyone connected with the old Government Accountability Board. And I was disgusted by Fitzgerald and the State Senate voting to fire the administrators of the Ethics Commission and Elections Commission just because they both used to work for the GAB, regardless of whether they were deeply involved in the John Doe II prosecution or not. And they weren’t, by the way. And that prosecution was legitimate because there was ample evidence that Scott Walker was breaking the law on the books at the time that said you can’t, as a candidate, coordinate with outside groups that are also engaging in electioneering. The only reason Walker got away with it was because the conservatives on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, who benefited from millions of dollars in expenditures by some of the same outside groups that the John Doe prosecutor was going after, waved their magic gavel and said that the First Amendment prohibits the State of Wisconsin from banning coordination between candidates and issue advocacy groups.

To take revenge, Walker and Fitzgerald and Vos have been going after anyone who used to work at the Government Accountability Board. They want to set an example. They want to say, “If you cross us, we’re going to crush you!”

And so Fitzgerald and the Republican Senators fired Brian Bell at the Ethics Commission and Michael Haas at the Elections Commission without even allowing them a public hearing. This was the first time in the history of Wisconsin that nominees weren’t allowed a hearing so they could defend their good names and so the public could weigh in.

To me, this smacked of McCarthyism, and I said so.

To me, Fitzgerald was acting like a playground bully, and I said so.

To me, Fitzgerald was even acting like a wannabe mobster, and I said so. He was trying to rub out anyone who was related to anybody who went after his buddies.

And Dave Zweifel, the great emeritus editor of the Capital Times, said so, too, writing that Fitzgerald was acting “like a mafia don.”

So, the question is, was I being disrespectful to Scott Fitzgerald?

Was Dave Zweifel being disrespectful to Scott Fitzgerald?

I’m going to leave those questions hanging, at least for the moment, because I’d like to throw Trump into the mix, too.

Let me level with you: I believe Donald Trump poses an urgent and immediate threat to our democracy. He has attacked the media, the Fourth Estate, as “the enemy of the people,” which is something that dictators say. He has attacked the judiciary in ways that we haven’t seen in my adult lifetime. He has a fascination with strongmen – not just Putin in Russia but Dutarte in the Philippines, and others. And now he wants a military parade!

Let me be blunt: I’m deeply concerned that Trump is a kind of Fascist. He uses two of the calling cards of the Fascist. He traffics in racism, as we saw in the beginning of his campaign, as he railed against Muslims and Mexicans, and as we saw clearly after Charlottesville. And he traffics in ultra-nationalism. That’s what “Make America Great” is all about: It’s an appeal to people’s sense of aggrieved national pride, and that appeal was central to Mussolini’s and Hitler’s rise to power.

Racism and ultra-nationalism are the sperm and the egg of Fascism, and Trump is putting them together with a little in vitro fertilization right there in the Oval Office.

And so I use the “F” word – “Fascism” -- in public about Trump.

Is that being disrespectful?

And so I call him “Trumpolini.”

Is that being disrespectful?

Let’s take a couple more examples.

Was it “disrespectful” for the cartoonist David Levine during the Vietnam War to draw his famous cartoon of LBJ? Here’s the context: LBJ had just had his appendix removed and liked to show off his scar to everyone, and David Levine made the scar into a map of Vietnam.

Was it “disrespectful” for the cartoonist Herb Block to draw Nixon always having a huge Pinocchio nose and a five o’clock shadow?

Fast forward to the present:

Is it “disrespectful” for Stephen Colbert to make fun of Trump night after night?

Is it “disrespectful” for Alec Baldwin to imitate and parody Trump on Saturday Night Live?

Is it “disrespectful” for Colin Kaepernich and other NFL players not to stand for the singing of the national anthem?

I suppose it depends on your definition of disrespectful.

But here’s where I come down:

In a democracy, we actually need to leave room for the disrespectful; we need to respect the disrespectful. We, as Americans, have the right to be disrespectful. We are not living in a monarchy. We do not bow and curtsey to our leaders.

And the demand to be respectful violates the First Amendment and our tradition of free speech and free-wheeling political debate and political satire.

After all, the First Amendment does not say, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of respectful speech.” It just says, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech,” with no modifier whatsoever.

And that’s how it should be.

So you may conclude that my calling Fitzgerald “a wannabe mobster” was disrespectful, or my calling the man in the White House “Trumpolini” was disrespectful.

If so, so be it.

The imperative to be respectful can turn into a gag order. And I don’t like gag orders. They stifle democracy, and we don’t want that to happen.

And for me, ultimately, if it’s a choice between being “respectful” and telling the truth, I’ll tell the truth, with clarity but not vulgarity, colorfully but not crudely. And I won’t be rude in person.

That’s where I draw the line.

You may draw the line somewhere else.

That’s something we can debate – respectfully, I hope.