In the movie Chocolat, a whimsical shopkeeper whips up mysterious concoctions in her kitchen that somehow manage to solve the problems of everyone who tastes them. When you see it, you can tell the filmmakers are convinced their audience will be captivated, watching in breathless wonder as the story unfolds. Personally, I have never hated a movie more. But the critics ate it up. I think it was even nominated for an Academy Award.
I’m beginning to think that the media is arriving at a Chocolat moment of its own as it looks on in breathless wonder at the newfound “civility” on Capitol Hill. High praise and hosannas all around. But folks, it’s just not that great. Here’s why:
First, there was the endless speculation about the nexus between the terrible shootings in Tucson and the tenor of our political debate. A worthy question. Also worthy: What should Congress do to prevent people like Jared Loughner from being able to purchase the weaponry he used? The media should have immediately turned a bright spotlight on our gun laws and then inquired into why the shootings generated so little momentum for reform. We’ve seen a little of that, but it’s been buried in the avalanche of opining about political speech.
Then House Republicans got back to work trying to dismantle healthcare reform. When Democrats were struggling to pass reform last year, we were inundated, via the media, with the sights and sounds of angry protesters. Watching the news accounts, you would have thought America was rising up in full-throated revolt. Of course, we now know that many of those protests were manufactured by conservative operatives.
With Republicans flexing their newfound majority in the House, the media had an opportunity to delve into the effect undoing health reform would have on millions of Americans who enjoy benefits they’ve never had before. Instead, the reporting was disproportionately about the kinds of words Republicans and Democrats used during floor debate. That was great news for Republicans—they could offer a sop to their base without alienating a broader swath of the electorate. Not so great for those of us who hope that newscasts will feature news. [Read the U.S. News debate: Should the healthcare law be repealed?]
And then there was the State of the Union. I think the bipartisan seating arrangement was a fine gesture, and I suspect its sponsors would suggest that it was meant to be nothing more. But the fourth estate couldn’t get enough—about which I would like to offer the following: If we have really come to the point where Congress is to be complimented for comporting itself as we would expect, say, a fifth grade classroom to do, then perhaps it is time to rethink this whole democratic experiment. Honestly. That is a low, low bar.
What does it matter? Given the choice, wouldn’t we rather have civil discourse than not have it? Yes. And anyone who worked the 2010 election cycle saw just how ugly the rhetoric could get. Understanding why some people are so angry—and how their anger impacts the political process and our perceptions of each other—is an inquiry the media ought to be engaged in. To their credit, many have tried to untangle that thicket. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on healthcare.]
And don't get me wrong: I am all for bipartisanship. It would be great if Republicans and Democrats could work together to solve the nation’s problems. But civility isn’t bipartisanship. And, I would argue, the current focus on civility enables more partisanship, not less. It’s like faux bipartisanship that provides cover for even the most partisan aims (see: repealing healthcare reform). If a patina of civility becomes the measure for whether a piece of legislative business is good or ill, then the media will have defaulted on their responsibility to inform the public, becoming fatally distracted by a lack of sound and fury that signifies relatively little.
This may all be changing. We’ll see what the coming weeks bring. But here’s what I think: I like chocolate, but at the risk of ruining Chocolat for anyone who hasn’t seen it, it isn’t magical. And neither is civility.