In 1787, the consummate Virginia statesman James Madison devised a technique to keep him from becoming overwrought in a political debate. While ideas — rather than air — circulated in the steamy Philadelphia state house, Madison asked a friend a simple favor.
Every time his temper rose or he got too excited, Madison wanted his friend to tug at his coattails. Maybe Republican Congressman Joe Wilson’s should’ve gotten the same treatment.
In the long summer of 1787, where “We the people,” was inked for the first time, 55 delegates clashed over voting districts, debated the powers of the executive and feuded over compromise—but it was civilized, something Clemson University political scientist Dr. David Woodard cannot say today.
As he begins a new semester, Woodard is discussing the Constitutional Convention with his students on the heels of the widely publicized outburst from the South Carolina representative. The episode is part of a decades-long rise in miserable manners.
“Civility has been going down hill for a long time,” said Woodard, calling it a “poisoned environment” where cynicism has replaced courtesy.
Etiquette is a hopeful fantasy in public discourse today, Clemson University political science professor Dr. Bruce Ransom said. Even before Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” confab during President Barack Obama’s health care speech Wednesday, decorum in American political life has diminished.
“Southern gentlemen, good manners and good behavior, that’s been thrown out the window,” Bruce said. “Even mainstream individuals are taking positions similar to what you would expect from marginal or fringe groups.”
Woodard said politicians no longer have the same command of audience, like Madison once exuded. Among his generally polite Southern gentry, Wilson was applauded for his purpose but scolded his impropriety, Woodard said.
Wilson had a considerable lead for his 2010 congressional race before the remark, but since last week’s outburst campaign donations have been filling the coffers of his Democratic competitor Rob Miller.
Jessica Santillo, of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Miller had raised more than $750,000. Woodard said Wilson had raised about $150,000 in support, but efforts to contact the campaign were thwarted as phone lines and the Web site were overwhelmed with traffic.
Despite the onslaught of criticism, both experts believe the incident was isolated for Wilson, describing him as a “mild-mannered” Southerner. Democrats were often ill-tempered with grumbling and complaints during former President George W. Bush’s speeches, they said.
“This is not without precedent, but speaking out was inappropriate,” Woodard said. Both parties have extreme personalities that we’re not exactly proud of, but I wouldn’t say that about Joe Wilson.”
Ransom said the climate echoes a distrustful segment of the population that approves of Wilson’s unbecoming conduct in the name of conviction and is concerned about President Obama’s politics.
“Underneath it all, there is some question of disrespect for President Obama,” Ransom said.
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