Paul Krugman, Mark Bittman, Jim Wallis, and Incivility in Political Speech

Budget cut proposals from House Republicans have been particularly effective at bringing forth uncivil attitudes in political debates recently. Here are three examples.

Paul Krugman

Princeton economics professor, Nobel prize winner, and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman referred to those who disagreed with him about the best way to reform health care as “stupid”. He also said that, “today’s Republicans just aren’t into rationality,” and the conservative side of the healthcare debate “sneers at knowledge and exalts ignorance.”

Mark Bittman

New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman recently wrote a column on why he is joining the Campaign for Prayer and Fasting to protest Republican budget cuts. For most of the column, Bittman lays out a cogent argument for opposing the budget cuts. In his final sentence, however, he says those who are unconvinced by his argument are incapable of “true worship [of God],” and cannot “have much humanity, either.”

Jim Wallis

Liberal evangelical political activist Jim Wallis has long been critical of the Christian Right for claiming to have divine guidance in public policy. This makes Wallis’ particular form of incivility notable. He engages in the type of behavior for which he has criticized the Christian Right.

Writing for the Huffington Post, Wallis calls Paul Ryan and the House Republicans “bullies”, “corrupt”, and “hypocrites”. In defense of his language, he places himself in the role of Isaiah, who also used strong language in his denunciations of the Israelites. Ryan’s budget would, in the words of Isaiah, “make misery for the poor”, rob “destitute people of dignity”, exploit “defenseless widows”, and take “advantage of homeless children.”

To provide some context, Krugman, Bittman, and Wallis are mostly talking about proposed changes to Medicare (health insurance for the elderly) and Medicaid (health insurance for the poor). Ryan’s proposal would change Medicare to a voucher type system that would allow the elderly to purchase insurance from private insurers, and change Medicaid to a block grant that would go to states to allow them some flexibility in how to administer the program. The amount spent on these programs would not be cut (or “gutted” to use Wallis’ term), but there would be a reduction in the current rate of growth.

The current projected growth of Medicare and Medicaid are unsustainable, so the costs of these programs must be controlled regardless of which party is in power. Raising taxes on the wealthy, or even the wealthy and the middle class, would not be enough to cover the projected rising costs of these programs. The Republican plan for cost control is to give more purchasing power to consumers (in the case of Medicare) and more flexibility to states to devise their own cost control measures (in the case of Medicaid). The Democrats generally prefer to give more authority to an expert panel to decide which health care methods are the most appropriate and affordable in order to control costs.

Krugman, Bittman, and Wallis may prefer the Democrat’s method over the Republican’s method, but to argue that the Republican plan is stupid, inhumane, makes misery of the poor, robs destitute people of dignity, exploits defenseless widows, and takes advantage of homeless children simply because it prefers vouchers and block grants over government bureaucracies stretches the imagination.

Republicans also believe that the poor and elderly would benefit from a strong economy. To that end, they generally prefer spending cuts over tax increases. (Ryan’s budget proposal would actually increase tax revenue in some places by eliminating some tax deductions, while also reducing tax rates across the board.) Democrats disagree. Disagreement is fine, but let us not argue that Republicans do not care about the poor and elderly simply because they have different ideas about what is best for the poor and elderly.

Democrats sincerely believe that their policies would be better for the poor and elderly, but so do Republicans. Paul Krugman, Mark Bittman, and Jim Wallis, however, believe that their own position is so obviously superior to the Republican position that Republicans must simply be stupid, ignorant, inhuman, evil, corrupt, hypocritical bullies who want to steal from the poor, the elderly, and children to give to the rich. This is not only rude, it is arrogant. We should be able to debate public policies without questioning each others morality, courage, integrity, religiosity, or humanity.

Compare, for instance, Krugman, Bittman, and Wallis’ writings to E. J. Dionne. Writing on the same topic, Dionne has this to say about Paul Ryan,

But while I am assailing his ideas, let me put in a good word about Ryan himself: He is, from my limited experience, a charming man who truly believes what he believes. I salute him for laying out the actual conservative agenda.

Dionne, wary of how political debates can quickly become uncivil, is careful to point out that he is disagreeing with his ideas, but not attacking his character.

After the recent shooting of Congresswoman Giffords, we had a national conversation about the need for more civil language in our political speech. How quickly Krugman, Bittman, and Wallis have forgotten those lessons. Wallis was even part of that conversation. He co-authored, with Chuck Colson, an editorial for Christianity Today calling for more civility. They wrote,

…when we disagree, especially when we strongly disagree, we should have robust debate but not resort to personal attack, falsely impugning others’ motives, assaulting their character, questioning their faith, or doubting their patriotism. It also means recognizing in humility that “we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12). In other words, when it comes to policies and politics, we could be wrong.

We must be ever mindful of the language we use and the spirit of our communication. Arrogance and boasting are indeed sins, and violent language can create a poisonous and dangerous public atmosphere. We must take care to not paint our political adversaries as our mortal enemies.

The working of democracy depends upon these virtues of civility. Standing for principle is crucial to moral politics, but demonizing our opponents poisons the public square. Therefore we must strive for both truth and civility. To be able to pursue the common good and to preserve the peaceful transition of political power means a commitment to both moral and civil discourse.

Wise words, indeed. If only Wallis, and others, would follow this advice.

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