Editorial Board

Take It Down a Notch, America

The rhetoric is too hot in Washington. And Peoria. And everywhere else.

Start here.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

After Wednesday’s shooting of U.S. Representative Steve Scalise and four others at a baseball field in Virginia, there was a brief outbreak of political civility in Washington. A more lasting change to the nation’s civic discourse will depend not just on the politicians in the capital, but on the public beyond it.

The politicians showed they are more than capable of elevating their rhetoric when necessary. President Donald Trump, in a departure from his usual style, sought to soothe and unify. House Speaker Paul Ryan drew a stark line, then put Democrats and Republicans on the same side of it. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi enthusiastically endorsed her Republican counterpart’s words.

The link between political speech and violence is hazy. With their calibrated response to the shooting, elected officials in Washington showed that they, at least, believe that such a link exists.

Arguments will continue to be heated. American political rhetoric is polarized because American politics is polarized. But the harsh words and tones that people use -- among those who treat politics as sport, the blame game for the shooting has already begun -- are a choice.

Robust debate is necessary in a democracy -- as is respect for opposing arguments. Too often Americans pay heed to the first and lip service to the second. The list of political epithets, from “baby killer” to “traitor,” is long. Partisans would do well to remember that neither side has a monopoly on virtue or good ideas, and that in politics all solutions are imperfect. That is especially true on emotionally fraught issues -- including whether political rhetoric influences violence.

The nation’s greatest political writer plied his trade during its most divided hour. Yet Abraham Lincoln insisted, as the Civil War drew to a close and while he himself was being routinely denounced as a tyrant, on “malice toward none.” It’s useful guidance not just for presidents or politicians of any particular stripe, but for all citizens. Do leaders in Washington need to ratchet down their rhetoric? Yes. So do ordinary Americans. 

    --Editors: Francis Wilkinson, Michael Newman

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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