Mr. Jonathan Dobrer, professor of comparative religion at the American Jewish University in Bel-Air, has tossed in his two cents on the Berman-Sherman battle, which almost got physical a week ago at Pierce College, with Sherman grabbing Berman and saying “You Wanna Get into This?” . In an editorial for the Los Angeles News Group (Daily News, Daily Breeze), Dobrer suggested that this contentious 30th Congressional District race changed his original conception of our politicized animosity, based on extremes pushing out the moderates. Instead of a “toxic partisan divide,” he believes the problem centers on “rudeness” among our candidates.
Dobrer wanted to extract from the Berman-Sherman tussle a wider referendum on the declining politeness of our nation’s polity – an extrapolation too extreme, in my opinion. No – today’s politics are not nearly as toxic as Mr. Dobrer contends.
Since the two-party system emerged in the United States following the Washington Administration (1789-1796), a partisan divide has often wedged into this country’s political discourse. However, what we consider “toxic” today is nothing compared to the vitriol of campaigns long gone. During the election of 1800, diverse slanders exchanged between incumbent John Adams and his Democratic-Republican Vice President, who was running to unseat him. Charges of atheism, whoremongering, and outright national betrayal tarred the landscape. Fast forward a generation, and President Andrew Jackson threatened to duel anyone who slandered his wife or threatened him, once stepping aside at a political rally to brandish his pistols in case anyone in the audience wanted to “start something.”
I still remember from my eighth grade US History book how the political animosity grew so tense in Washington in the mid-1800s, from the Mexican-American War to the War Between the States, that Congressmen were bringing knives and guns to their chambers. In one infamous incident, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner railed against the Southern slavocracy with frequent insults and condescending remarks. The senators whom Sumner maligned, South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, was not present. Instead, his nephew Preston Brooks beat him unconscious to the floor of US Senate with a cane. Sumner went on medical leave for three years. Brooks received censure, acclamation, and reelection from his constituents.
Let us not forget the Party Machines of the Gilded Age – between the Civil War and World War I – in which the levers of power belonged to party bosses in urban areas instead of the men or voters who sent them to Washington. From Communist red-baiting in the McCarthy era to today, different interests, whether Tea Partiers or Occupiers to people who just want to occupy the party in play, and their political pandering and thundering have stirred up a lot of Sturm und Drang, but nothing like the salacious slanders or malicious attacks of those previous campaigns.
No – today’s national politics are not nearly as toxic as Mr. Dobrer contends.
But what is going on in the Berman-Sherman race which has elicited so much negative mail and petty character attacks and legislative sniping? Dobrer properly contends that “there is not much substantial difference between Berman and Sherman.” So, how do these candidates differentiate themselves? How do they persuade voters? Earlier in the campaign, Berman and Sherman were frequenting townhalls and pledging to look into local matters with greater scrutiny. Sherman and Berman now have to reach out to Republican and Independent voters in order to get ahead. I believe that despite the unfortunate acrimony which has developed between the two liberal Democrats, the friction of two Congressman with so much alike has revealed a lot about the minute distinctions within the Democratic Party, an issue which voters knew nothing about, plus now they have to strive harder to get their votes for reelection.
So, I differ with Mr. Dobrer regarding the “toxic” or even “rude” nature of our nation’s political discourse. Furthermore, I do not share his view that the voters of the Valley are the ones who “drive otherwise good politicians to say bad things.” The two candidates have the right and the opportunity to make their case to the voters based on their record, their rhetoric, and their rage, if they so choose. They chose to hold public office; they can choose to behave themselves appropriately or otherwise in public while seeking another term in office. Perhaps the fraught and taut exchange at Pierce College has allowed voters to take a breath and laugh. Congressmen are people, too. Instead of demanding from them an impossible standard of 24-7 impeccable conduct, let’s give them a break and even applaud when they have the moxie to make a point and apologize when they go too far.
If the voters in the Valley resent excessive negative ads, they can plead their case to the candidates. Why not set up this contest between Howard Berman and Brad Sherman with the remaining undecided voters: Whichever candidate can refrain from bad-mouthing, name-calling, or instigating with his opponent, he will in turn command the respect of the remaining undecided and clinch the election in November. Berman and Sherman do not have to have a “love fest”, but at least they could avoid the “fist-fight”.