Reagan modeled civil discourse we need now

My wife Eileen and I are hunkered down this week under Cuomo’s quarantine, following our trip to California last week to visit the Reagan Ranch. The visit was arranged by our daughter Clare, who works for Young America’s Foundation (YAF)—and we are so grateful to that organization and its president Ron Robinson, for preserving this historic and iconic site. 

For me, our visit recalled a decade, the 1980s, that was transformative—on a personal level, as those were the years in which Eileen and I met and married, and I finally finished college and embarked on my career in Catholic communications; but also on the national and international stage, as Reagan’s presidency revitalized America, St. John Paul II’s papacy rejuvenated the Church, and together they lit the spark and kindled the flames of peaceful revolution that ended the Cold War and freed millions from the yoke of Communist oppression.

It also seems, looking backward from the vantage point of 2020, to have been a much tamer time as well. Of course, in many ways it wasn’t. The world was gripped then as now by wars, terrorism, and threats to human survival; and domestically, many of the issues that still challenge us today—racial tensions, violent crime, immigration, health care, poverty, the mass destruction of pre-born human lives—were with us back then.

But I am thinking of the public discourse surrounding our politics—and the vital role that Ronald Reagan played in promoting civility in that discourse.

Of course, politics has always had a nasty edge to it; and we were reminded during this visit of the nastiness and ad hominem attacks to which Reagan was subjected by political opponents and media critics.

Remember, he was not just portrayed as wrong on the issues—that was fair game, as when then-GOP primary opponent George H.W. Bush termed Reagan’s tax cut plan “voodoo economics.” In that realm Reagan gave as good as he got—as when he said of the economic crisis, “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”

Hard-hitting, but the point was a policy one—Carter’s economic program was failing, in Reagan’s view, and a change in leadership was needed.

Contrast that with the constant portrayals of Reagan as a simplistic dolt who would starve the poor and plunge the world into nuclear annihilation. I cannot recall an instance when he responded in kind to such vicious personal attacks. If any readers do recall such an instance, I would appreciate your passing it along.

Instead, he sometimes deflected such personal attacks with self-deprecating humor. Most often he patiently strove to explain how he felt his policies would have just the opposite effect—uplifting the poor by stimulating economic growth, preserving world peace by being strong enough to deter aggression. That he did so, of course, in plain-spoken language that made his ideas accessible to all—earning him the “Great Communicator” sobriquet— drove his opponents crazy, and provoked their attacks on his intellect.

I would maintain that his civility and respect for his political adversaries was also a critical part of that “great communicator” persona. He was about persuading people as to the rightness of his ideas, not trying to demonize those who disagreed. He saved his strong moral condemnations for those world forces that were truly malevolent, like the Soviet “evil empire” that engaged in genocide and enslavement of its own people. Domestic political opponents were just that—political adversaries, not enemies—and while Reagan argued that their policy ideas were wrong-headed, one strains to recall him ever questioning their good intentions.    

His respect and civility seemed to draw out those qualities in his opponents as well. We were reminded during our visit to the ranch of his rather remarkable relationship with then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. Despite often bitter battles over tax cuts and various other legislation, the two seemed to have developed a genuine respect and even personal liking for one another. Can anyone even imagine, absent an overt act of God, a similar relationship developing today between President Trump and Speaker Pelosi?

Agree or disagree with President Reagan’s policies—I agreed with many of them—we all, I think, owe him a special debt of gratitude for modeling the art of civil political discourse. Like some others of that era—I’m thinking of the conservative Jack Kemp and the liberal “happy warrior” Hubert Humphrey—he showed how one can be a strong, emphatic advocate for the policies and principles one believes in, while respecting, not demonizing those who disagree.

How we miss that positive spirit; and how well it would serve us today, amid what has become an absolutely poisonous political atmosphere.  

Published by Rick Hinshaw

I have spent the last three decades in primarily Catholic communications work: as a reporter, news editor, columnist, and for eight years editor of The Long Island Catholic; several years as co-host and co-producer of The Catholic Forum program on the diocesan Telecare channel; two stints as Director of Communications for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; and a year as Associate Director for Communications at the New York State Catholic Conference. I also served for three years as Public Information Officer for the late Nassau County District Attorney Denis Dillon, a staunchly Catholic and active pro-life leader. Over that more than 30-year career, I have gained an ever deeper understanding of and appreciation for the moral and social teachings of our Church. In my various roles I have lent my voice to articulating those teachings and their applicability to the critical issues of our time. That is what I intend to do with this blog. Moreover, at a time when our political and social disagreements seem to have degenerated into constant vitriol, vilification, verbal abuse and intolerance of those who hold differing opinions, I hope that this blog can contribute, in some small way, to a restoration of respectful debate and discussion, where we can defend our beliefs forcefully without demonizing any who disagree with us. As a Catholic commentator, that is what I have always striven to do--remembering that even as we are called to stand firmly in defense of our Church, her teachings, and our right to be heard in the public square, we are also called always to be the face of Christ to the world--most especially to those with whom we disagree.

25 thoughts on “Reagan modeled civil discourse we need now

  1. The acrimony is also evident within the Church on moral issues among laity. Although the Church has defined positions and canons on moral issues we see bishops ignoring Church teaching. The latest example as reported today in EWTN’s Catholic News Agency where Cardinal Tobin of Newark all but endorsed Biden without regard to 2004 teaching by Pope Benedict regarding proportionality of non-negotiable moral issues or the USCCB document on forming conscience. So sad.

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  2. Rick – the 1980s were indeed a time when politicians were able to reach across the aisle and get things done for the American people, and Ronald Reagan as President led by example. I appreciate your waxing nostalgic about the 1980s but left unsaid in your closing was the fact that we now have a president who is the polar opposite of Ronald Reagan, a president who instead of practicing civility and respect is always on the attack and seeks to demonize his opponents. Your post would have been more powerful if you had at least mentioned who has been doing the most to poison our politics instead of setting a good example.

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    1. Bernie, see Bob Campbell’s comment below. That expresses my intent with this post, and my response as well to your comment. As always, thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts in response.

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      1. Rick – I appreciate that you were trying to ignore the elephant in the room, but now you’ve done it twice! If you can’t address the fact that President Trump has destroyed any semblance of civil discourse in our country, then why even write this blog post! You talked about how great President Regan was, and how you wish things today would be better, why don’t you just connect the dots?

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    2. I wholeheartedly disagree with you Bernie.

      In my view, one may not like his demeanor (which is improving), but President Trump has done many wonderful things for this nation while the Democratic Party has adopted many planks of intrinsically evil positions and is accepting the increasing violence often hidden by the major media outlets.

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      1. Thank you, Walter. I would add, in response to Bernie, that while it is true that Trump has become kind of the poster boy for incivility, any objective analysis would have to conclude that it did not start with Trump. Recall one Democrat after another accusing Bush of having “lied us into war.” It was not enough to have argued that Bush was “wrong” in his assessment that Hussein was stockpiling WMDs. No, he deliberately “lied,” such was his lust for war. That is the exact antithesis of what I praise about Reagan: that he would forcefully argue that his opponents were wrong, but would not question their good intentions. I chose not to get into individual specifics, because there is enough blame to go around, on all sides, for today’s poisonous public discourse. Blaming only one man, or one party, for that only ADDS to the poison.

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      2. Walter and Rick – the way you make excuses for President Trump’s inexcusable behavior is just appalling! His demeanor is improving??? And there is no question that the level of incivility that is present today started with Trump. Of course elected officials accused President George W. of lying us into war (I won’t get into the facts on that assertion), but that was a legitimate dispute about whether the administration (ok, I blame Cheney!) had twisted intelligence to make its case. But that is a totally different issue from what Trump has done. No one has ever made the personal attacks using silly nicknames and used Twitter to bully opponents in the way that Trump has. He has lowered the level of discourse in this country and created division. This is exactly the opposite of Reagan, which is what I thought the point of Rick’s blog was.

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      3. Hi Bernie,

        Along with Rick, I do agree that Pres.Trump has acted and spoken badly and yes, demeanor is the main subject of Rick’s blog. So, OK, Trump gets a low mark for civility.

        However, when viewing the most serious issues affecting our society he gets very high marks as he is on the right side of those non-negotiable issues of our time while the Democratic party violates every intrinsic evil by supporting them:

        Abortion (About 60 million people died from abortion in the US to date and millions of lives scarred.)
        Human Cloning
        Euthanasia (assisted suicide)
        Stem Cell Research
        Homosexual “Marriage”

        http://www.catholic365.com/article/4293/the-5-nonnegotiables-explained.html

        Some lists add surrogate pregnancies (destroys unused living embryos) & religious freedom to this list.

        I’m sure you know that the Church does not consider immigration, health care, capital punishment & economics as non-negotiable issues since there is legitimate room for disagreement on those issues.

        It’s true there are some bishops who support negotiable issues with equal weight against non-negotiables but they are clearly in error when measured against the USCCB voting guide “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”:

        https://www.usccb.org/resources/forming-consciences-faithful-citizenship-pdf

        and Pope Benedict’s directive of 2004:

        A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons. (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Letter to the U.S. Bishops on Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion, 2004)

        Pope Benedict’s proportionality phrase “… can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons” is left out when Democrats point to this writing and they thereby distort the meaning to make it seem admissible to support abortion candidates. The “proportionate reasons” are the non-negotiables listed above.

        I truly hope my reply is civil as it is certainly meant to be in keeping with the blog’s theme.

        Walter Ruzek

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  3. Hi Rick,

    Your blog totally resonated with me.

    Thank you for your even-handed approach. It is a great example of “dialogue” as Pope Francis urges us to do.

    As for the comments above:

    The first one truly scares me.

    The second, which applauds you “but” – I do not agree with. You opened dialogue. Mentioning President Trump, while it would have been totally accurate, would have been the opposite of what you were trying to do, which is to have open and polite dialogue. Speaking and listening to one another…with civility.thank you for your civility.

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  4. Since our Marriage Encounter, I have a soft spot for Don Quixote type musings. Your nostalgia about past era civility touches that spot. Unfortunately I don’t anticipate any contemporary applications about to evolve. Colonial revolutionaries defeated the British Redcoats by ignoring their prior traditional firing line and attacking them from the rear. Today we and civility are akin to the British while the current Democratic Party juggernaut is like the Colonists not playing according to Hoyle. The media and the entertainment industry are teamed with the “UNCIVIL” dems to promote their Anti-Life platform and agenda along with a host of other undesirable prospects. Contradicting statements and positions and weak, possibly too civil, posturing within Catholic bastions are leading toward surrender and compliance. It conjures up thoughts of Chamberlain Briton before Churchill.

    Note, not a word about backbone or cowardice.

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  5. To Bernie: Sorry, but your knee-jerk defense of Democratic character assassination (did you defend their treatment of Robert Bork as well?) make your one-sided, partisan bias all too evident.) I tried to address an OVERALL degeneration of civil discourse and you have responded by contributing to that incivility. Feel free to keep doing so, but you only discredit yourself.

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    1. Sorry Rick, from the title of your blog and your discussion of Presidrnt Reagan, I thought you were focused on how presidents set an example for civil discourse. There is no question that civil discourse on an overall basis was declining well before Trump ran for president, but there is also no question that he has destroyed any semblance of civil discourse with his online bullying, overt racism and demonizing of the opposing party. If you don’t think Trump deserves to be called out for that, then you shouldn’t be holding up Reagan as an example to emulate. Just hold your nose, look the other way and let Trump continue to destroy civil discourse because like Walter claims, he is on the right side of ‘non-negotiable issues’ of which truth-telling and civility are obviously not included.

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      1. Thank you, Bernie. No, I wasn’t looking to focus particularly on presidential discourse, as I think was made clear by my citing, in the same post, Hubert Humphrey and Jack Kemp as similar models of civility and mutual respect. Neither of them was ever president. My main focus on Reagan was occasioned by our visit to his ranch, which put me in mind of how political and social discourse has degenerated from then to now. Rather than single anyone out for negative criticism, I chose to focus on positive examples of how we can do better.

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      2. Thanks Rick, but Hubert Humphrey ran for president and Jack Kemp ran for VP, and both of them were great examples of how people in the highest offices in our democracy, and people running for those offices, should conduct themselves. Both of them would have been appalled at the disgraceful behavior of the president last night and the disrespectful way he treated his opponent and the moderator, and again brought civility in this country to another low. Also both of them would have quickly condemmed white supremacy!! What will it take for you to call him out for “negative criticism” (I didn’t know criticism could be positive) instead of waxing nostalgic about positive examples?

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  6. Bernie, in your earlier comment, you wrote, and I quote, “I thought you were focused on how presidents set an example for civil discourse.” Now, when I note that my citations of Hubert Humphrey and Jack Kemp should have made it clear that I wasn’t so exclusively focused, you say, oh, well, they “ran” for president. So what? They weren’t examples of a focus on “presidents” because they were never president. As to last night, I agree, Trump’s performance was disgraceful–as was Biden’s sometimes petulant, sometimes vicious name-calling: “racist…clown…liar”, and his telling the president, “shut up, man.” I am appalled by both of them. You seem, at least judging from all your comments to this blog so far, appalled only by those you disagree with politically. Please, show me by one example how I am wrong about that.

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    1. Rick – You used President Reagan as an example to follow for civil discourse, and I strongly agreed with you. In fact, despite my disagreements with many of their policy positions, I have NEVER been appalled by the incivility of any Republican president, vice president, or Republican presidential candidate or VP candidate in the way I am appalled by Trump. I understand you don’t want to “single out anyone for negative criticism” but I wish you would stop trying to minimize Trump’s incivility by making it seem that there has been similar behavior by other people (commonly known as whataboutism). If you can seriously claim that Biden’s performance in the debate was as disgraceful as Trump’s, then you are kidding yourself. Trump set the tone of incivility from the start of the debate and criticized the moderator several times, which I don’t believe has ever been done in a presidential debate. I don’t think Biden’s use of the words “racist… clown…liar” was vicious name calling, I think he was stating facts Trump refused to condemn white supremacy — what does that tell you? According to the Washington Post, Trump has told more than 20,000 false or misleading claims since becoming president. As for the word clown, when Trump states that he thinks masks are fine, pulls one out of his pocket, and then mocks Biden for wearing masks, that is worse than a clown, that is inexcusable, and has led to tragic consequences for our country. I think it would be helpful to clearly single out someone for negative criticism, without trying to minimize it, when the person who is setting the worst example holds the highest office in the land. Leaders should lead by example,, period.

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      1. All this consideration of incivility makes me wonder if we aren’t opening the door to a similar preoccupation with political correctness and specific vocabulary. If we are offended by someone’s speech, we are free not to listen or not to attend when they are present. We have lost words from our vocabulary and works of art from our environs because those that took offense were so vocal about them. History isn’t always pleasant but it is what was. What we take from the words and monuments of such is not necessarily always what the offended assert.

        A lot of the blame for the emergence of focus on civility is not addressed. The media and the entertainment industry have gotten to a position where they are deciding the rules and measures of a host of factors that they are neither qualified nor competent to regulate. Like Robert’s Rules of Order used to be applied to meetings, a comparable regimen was adopted for most debates. Unfortunately the acute biases of the individual broadcasting media and the affiliated moderators encourages the kind of performances we have witnessed of late. A detached approach and a battery of questions germane to the subject or approach is necessary along with enforceable penalties agreed to in advance.

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  7. John, thanks for your comment, sorry to be so long in responding. I agree with you: many who talk about civility–or who seek to define what is acceptable speech and what is not–are imposing very partisan restrictions on some speech, while on their side, “anything goes.” For example, Trump can be excoriated for alleged racial insensitivity in some of his remarks, but Joe Biden, campaigning to a largely black audience in 2012, can say of his political opponents (while affecting a patronizing, demeaning black dialect) “They gwon put y’all back in chains!” And you are right, the biases of presidential debate moderators–not to mention their sense of self-importance–seriously compromises their needed, but seemingly non-existent, objectivity. Understand, the civility I am calling for is not the imposition of political correctness, which is really a one-sided attempt to suppress free speech. I just feel that we are best served as an ordered society–and I believe in particular our defense of the sanctity of life is best advanced–by civil discourse. I have never had any problem, in my years of pro-life speaking, often before hostile audiences, with hearing out the opposing views of others. As long as I have an opportunity to respond, I believe we have the better of the argument, and so I want the opportunity to hear and refute the pro-abortion arguments. I’m not saying we should not be strong and firm in stating our position. We must be. I’m just saying we can be strong and firm without being personally insulting, without demeaning or shouting down those who disagree–without, in short, adopting the tactics of many of those who disagree with us.

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    1. Rick – I’m still incredibly shocked and disappointed that you are twisting yourself into knots to not call out President Trump for being racially insensitive! What would he have to say to have you remove the “alleged” label? I don’t want to list the thousands of racially insensitive things he’s said since launching his presidential campaign (or the thousands in his life before that, along with being caught for discriminating against Blacks in the apartments his family owned) but you only need to see what he said when he infamously came down the escalator in 2015 to launch his campaign:

      “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

      Please tell me that you don’t think this is “alleged” racial insensitivity! He maligned all Mexican immigrants in these statements! I’m beginning to think you are one of those people who would still make excuses for Trump if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue! And please stop with the Whataboutism — it is shameful that you reached back to 2012 for something about Biden — you still haven’t said anything about Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacy just two weeks ago – what are you waiting for?

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      1. This conversation about Trump’s in civility seems to me akin to Jesus’ comment about straining the gnat and swallowing the camel (Mt 23:24).

        Obama/Biden sound civil while they advance a multitude of intrinsic evils.

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      2. Yes, I will acknowledge that that remark was racially insensitive, and that even Trump’s added caveat (which you chose to omit), “And some of them, I’m sure are good people,” did not erase the racial insensitivity of that overall statement. Now how about you acknowledging that the remark I quoted from Biden was equally repugnant, the kind of incendiary racial arsonism designed to further divide this country for political gain? It wasn’t enough for Biden to say the economic policies of his political opponents were “wrong”. No, they were all wannabe slavemasters! That is precisely what I was referring to in this original blog post, the inability to differ with one’s opponents without impugning their motives. And why is it OK for you to reach back four years to Trump’s comment from 2016 (actually I believe it was five years ago, 2015) but not OK for me to go back three more, to 2012? Especially when the comment from 2012 was made by a figure who is currently a candidate for President? What is the cutoff time, Bernie, what is your statute of limitations for how far we can reach back? Well, we know what the cutoff for you is: it’s Donald Trump. You want to pretend that he is the sole practitioner of political incivility, so you want the discussion to begin and end with his candidacy and presidency. I maintain that it did not start with Trump, that Trump–as distasteful as I find some of his rhetoric and behavior–is the result, not the cause of this ever-growing incivility, which in itself is not limited to politics. It is in our entertainment, in our sports, in our everyday language, even on some of the profane bumper stickers I have to be subjected to when driving or just walking through my neighborhood. It is that overall coarseness that I was trying to address, in a positive way, by citing several examples of civility. You have turned it into a negative commentary centered on one individual, ruling any contrasting examples as out of bounds, either because they are too old(???) or because the offenders are not named Donald Trump.

        As for your claim that Trump refused to condemn white supremacists, if I agreed with you that that’s what he did, I would condemn it. But I believe that is a false and unfair characterization–as is, I believe, your constantly taking out of context his remark after Charlottesville that “there are good people on both sides.” I would not have phrased it that way, but his point was clear–just as all the people who wanted those statues taken down were not antifa rioters trying to illegally tear them down, so not all those who wanted to protect the statues were violent white supremacists. Some were, and one of them killed a person, a despicable act that Trump condemned. White supremacists are a dangerous fringe (as evidenced by the recently exposed plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Whitmer) who must be monitored and stopped when they threaten or engage in violence. (I’m sure you noted that at least one of their ringleaders professed an absolute hatred for Donald Trump, by the way.) But their numbers are far less, and their acts of violence far fewer, than the organized antifa rioters who continue to set American cities ablaze, and to terrorize primarily minority small businesses and inner city communities, ostensibly to protest racism. Are the politicians who keep reminding us that the protests are “mostly peaceful,” thereby excusing the violent rioters? No, no more than Trump was excusing the violent white supremacists by saying there were good people on both sides. I’m sure you don’t like it when the peaceful protesters against police actions are lumped in with the violent radicals; but you’re happy to lump peaceful protesters against the removals of statues in with violent white supremacists.

        One standard for all, Bernie, one standard for all.

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      3. Rick – I chose to omit the added caveat because it was not sincere!! How can you possibly say that Trump’s escalator speech, which was clearly a racist attack on Mexico and Mexican immigrants, is equivalent with Biden’s remarks which were not an attack on anyone!!! There is no statute of limitations, I went back to 2015 because I told you that I didn’t want to list the thousands of racially insensitive things that Trump has said in his presidency, including hundreds of statements he has made this year about the Black Lives Matter protests. You are the one that went back to 2012 — I could have listed plenty of examples from this year. I don’t know where you came up with the term “incendiary racial arsonism” but the top result for a search of that phrase on Google came up with an article from 2019 titled “Will Republicans Finally Disown Trump’s Incendiary Racism” https://whyy.org/articles/will-republicans-finally-disown-trumps-incendiary-racism/

        If you really believe that Donald Trump didn’t refuse to condemn white supremacy at the recent debate or after the tragic events at Charlottesville, then I have lost respect for you. You can twist words as much as you like, but the bottom line is that Trump’s incivility is not the result of what happened before him. He is responsible for taking incivility, coarseness and bullying, especially online bullying, to a new level that is dangerous to our country. His behavior should not be excused by anyone who believes in civil and moral behavior, especially believers in Jesus Christ. Do you really think that Jesus would approve of the way Donald Trump slurs immigrants and doesn’t condemn hate groups and white supremacists? WWJD

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  8. Walter, thank you. Yes, we are always challenged to set priorities when we vote. We can prefer the personalities of certain candidates, deplore the rhetoric of others, and sometimes these personal characteristics will comport with our judgements about their policy positions, which makes our voting choices easy. At other times, however, we will find some candidates personally offensive, in their campaign tactics, rhetoric, etc. Even in their personal lives, I have always maintained that character counts in choosing our elected officials. We may be drawn to someone who seems personally religious, or is a good family man or woman. But as you note, sometimes such candidates will–whatever their motivation–support policies that are intrinsically evil (the mass destruction of innocent human life, you and I agree, is one such policy). And so we must weigh all the factors, set priorities and cast our votes accordingly. With my emphasis on civility, it is perhaps unfortunate that I have chosen to start this blog in the heat of a very contentious political campaign, lest it be misinterpreted as my saying we should disregard all else and just vote for the more civil candidate (although in this election I’m not even sure who that would be, though one of our commenters is absolutely certain.) I didn’t want to get into such partisan judgements, which is why in this post I cited several political figures from 40 years ago, one Democrat and two Republicans. The post was more about explaining my own preferred approach to discourse, which I hope will always inform this blog site, rather than trying to persuade readers to vote for whoever they see as the more civil candidate in this election. As you point out, it is not that simple.

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  9. Rick – one change to my earlier post – I do realize that Biden’s remarks in 2012 were an attack — he attacked his political opponents and made a stupid analogy to slavery. But if you need to go back to 2012 to find an example of incivility from Joe Biden, instead of something more recent, that shows that Biden is not trying to raise the level of incivility in this election, whereas Trump has been doing that ever since he came down the escalator.

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