A lesson on civility in politics from Sen. Margaret Chase Smith

A lesson on civility in politics from Sen. Margaret Chase Smith
© Getty Images

It was 70 years ago this month that Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin gave a speech in West Virginia in which he claimed the State Department was flooded with communists. McCarthy’s continued campaign of wild accusations sparked what became known as “McCarthyism,” and led to fear and chaos throughout the government.

Another speech was delivered in June of that year by the junior senator from Maine. Her name was Margaret Chase Smith. Sen. Smith’s speech, delivered on the floor of the Senate, was entitled, “Declaration of Conscience.” She took on McCarthy and the notion of McCarthyism, even though she never mentioned her fellow senator by name. More important, she explained in a succinct fifteen minutes the danger faced by a nation when uncivil and demonizing rhetoric takes hold in the public arena.

America’s political leaders, and their followers, could learn a lot from the straight talk Smith delivered back then. Today, a prominent politician tears up a speech in front of a national television office. Another calls prospective voters to their faces “lying dog-faced pony soldier” and “damn liar.” The nation’s tweeter-in-chief never misses an opportunity to turn up the rhetorical heat on an opponent with insults and belittling nicknames. Social media mobs roam the digital arena harassing and attacking the nation’s leaders and each other.

ADVERTISEMENT

It is little wonder the nation is so polarized. The nation faces many challenges, of course, but the rhetorical brick bats being lobbed around only exacerbate the division. The Pew Research Center reports that 85 percent of Americans believe political dialogue has become less respectful and more negative in recent years.

A ScottRasmussen.com poll last year found that 40 percent of Democrats find it impossible “to like and respect someone who supports President TrumpDonald John TrumpCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House MORE,” while 38 percent of Republicans feel the same about people in the Trump resistance. A Georgetown Institute of Politics study last fall found that two thirds of Americans believe the nation is on the “edge of a civil war.” It figures the citizenry would think this way, given the rhetorical extremism of attention-grabbing politicians and the media’s determination to give angry showboaters the highest and most sensational profiles.

Smith warned in 1950 that the nation had a “feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear.” She lambasted colleagues on both sides of the aisle for “irresponsible words of bitterness and selfish political opportunism,” saying the Senate itself, “as the greatest deliberative body in the world” had become “debased to the level of a forum of hate and character assassination.”

Sen. Smith claimed that true freedom of speech had declined in the nation because it was being “so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.” That problem is genuine today with community censorship and “cancel culture” shutting people up on college campuses, on social media and even in social settings.

Smith reminded her Senate colleagues of what she called “the basic principles of Americanism,” seemingly channeling constitutional framer, James Madison. She listed the principles as “The right to criticize; the right to hold unpopular beliefs; the right to protest; the right of independent thought.” Exercising these rights, she said, “should not cost one single American his reputation,” adding that every American holds beliefs that could be considered unpopular at some point. Otherwise, Smith pointed out, Americans would not be free thinkers and “thought control would have set in.”

ADVERTISEMENT

It would be four years after Smith’s speech before McCarthy was finally censured by the Senate and his era of fear-mongering and rhetorical hostility went into rapid decline. Smith’s speech was not the end of McCarthyism by any means, but it was a key spark to what became the beginning of the end. She spoke courageously at a time when higher profile political leaders would not.

Americans should heed Smith’s wise insights from 70 years ago. Like then, and maybe even more so today, the nation is in a state of what she called “being psychologically divided,” with confusing and angry messages fueling the schism. She concluded her speech with a warning that failure to curb such “totalitarian techniques” would “surely end what we have come to cherish as the American way of life.” America today yearns for leaders who will step into the rhetorical arena and model civil discourse as the nation confronts it challenges.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.