Let the Mudsorting Begin!


“Political civility is not about being polite to each other.  It’s about reclaiming the power of ‘We the People’ to come together, debate the common good and call American democracy back to its highest values amid our differences.”

– Parker Palmer

Democrats are debating how they should respond to Republicans.  Michelle Obama, former first lady, said in 2016, “When they go low, we go high.”[1]  Recently, former Attorney General Eric Holder countered, “When they go low, we kick ’em. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about.”[2]  Hillary Clinton said, “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.”[3]

Is incivility a bad thing?  Some argue that incivility does lasting damage to our democracy, resulting in decent people refusing to run while attracting “toxic ideologues who are there simply to benefit themselves.[4]  It can also “reduce trust in government, belief in institutional legitimacy and media credibility while further polarizing citizens politically.”[5]  But others say that incivility can also “open up political debate” as well as “get people to pay attention, get involved and offer their own perspectives. [6]

What would the founders think of the strategy adopted by our current politicians?  In outlining procedures for the House and Senate, Thomas Jefferson apparently approved of civility:

When any member is about to speak in debate, or deliver any matter to the House, he shall rise from his seat, and respectfully address himself to “Mr. Speaker,” and shall confine himself to the question under debate, and avoid personality.[7]

Furthermore, he noted that “[n]o one is to speak impertinently or beside the question, superfluously or tediously. . . No person is to use indecent language against the proceedings of the House.”[8]  A member may not “digress from the matter to fall upon [another member] by speaking, reviling, nipping, or unmannerly words against a particular member.”[9]  Mr. Jefferson also disapproved of personal attacks:

The consequence of a measure may be reprobated in strong terms; but to arraign the motives of those who propose or advocate it, is a personality, and against order[,which] . . . Mr. Speaker ought to suppress.[10]

But there Thomas Jefferson was referring to conduct inside the Capitol after being elected.  The same rules apparently did not apply during elections.  While it was considered “unseemly” in those days for candidates “to seek votes or speak ill of the opposition,” supporters — both those paid and unpaid — were not so constrained.[11]    Thomas Jefferson’s campaign called his opponent, John Adams, a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”[12]  Adams was also “portrayed as a monarchist and an Anglophile who was secretly bent on establishing a family dynasty by having his son succeed him as President.”[13]  Jefferson’s paid lackey accused Adams of wanting to start a war with France.[14]

Jefferson, on the other hand, was branded a Francophile and an atheist, and “his courage during the War of Independence” was questioned.[15]  The Adams’ campaign called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow.”[16]

So incivility is nothing new.  But when the mudslinging starts, how can a voter determine who is telling the truth – or indeed if anyone is?  Several fact-checking services exist to quickly investigate a candidate’s claims or a political ad.  Politifact[17] rates statements as either true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false, or “pants on fire” false.  It also determines whether a candidate has changed positions, by indicating “No Flip,” “Half Flip,” or “Full Flop.”[18]  For example, an ad from The Congressional Leadership Fund said that “Dan McCready ‘did admit he opposes middle class tax cuts’” was rated as false because McCready said exactly the opposite.[19]

FactCheck.org,[20] a project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center, is “a nonpartisan, nonprofit ‘consumer advocate for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.”[21]  To accomplish this mission, it “monitor[s] the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases.”[22]  For example, on one day, it covered President Trump’s statements as well as those of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.[23]

Real Clear Politics,[24] on the other hand, offers “a centralized searchable database, updated weekly, that codifies key characteristics of all fact checks bearing on issues of civic and public concern published by six major fact-checking organizations: FactCheck, the New York Times, Politifact, Snopes, the Weekly Standard, and the Washington Post.”[25]  It provides a table that shows the fact-checker organization, the individual fact-checker, the claim, whether the claim was fact or opinion, the source of the claim, the source’s verdict as to the claim’s truth, and the sources used in determining the verdict.[26]

For state-wide or local races, which these fact-checkers may not cover, run a simple search using the claim’s keywords and the name of the candidate.  Then choose the least biased among those sources by checking their media bias ratings to determine which source will offer the most balanced evaluation.[27]  For example, Senator Claire McCaskill, who is running for re-election in Missouri, was accused of ignoring victims of sexual violence because she married a man who had been accused of domestic violence in a previous marriage.[28]  Could this be true?  A search using the words, “Claire McCaskill, ‘domestic violence,’ husband,” yielded many results of news organizations that had reviewed this claim.[29]  Because The Kansas City Star was deemed “left center” while other sources were more extreme, I chose that outlet and learned that this accusation was made despite her long record on women’s rights and her work on behalf of sexual assault victims.[30]  Even her husband’s ex-wife, the alleged domestic violence victim,[31] supports Senator McCaskill’s re-election.[32]

So let the mudsorting begin!  While you may lose patience with the name-calling and personal attacks, you will be able to separate the dirty laundry from the clean truth and vote accordingly.


[1] Will Drabold, Read Michelle Obama’s Emotional Speech at the Democratic Convention, Time, July 26, 2016, http://time.com/4421538/democratic-convention-michelle-obama-transcript/.

[2] Aaron Blake, Eric Holder:  When they go low, we kick them. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about, Washington Post, October 20, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2018/10/10/eric-holder-when-they-go-low-we-kick-them-thats-what-this-new-democratic-party-is-about/?utm_term=.59e90009e97c.

[3] Rachel Ventresca, Clinton:  “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for,” CNN, October 9, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/09/politics/hillary-clinton-civility-congress-cnntv/index.html.

[4] Christian Schneider, Dear Democrats, stop imitating Trump’s incivility.  It will backfire at the polls, USA Today, June 29, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/06/29/democrats-trump-incivility-backfire-polls-democracy-column/742692002/.

[5] Emily Sydnor, Does Incivility Hurt Democracy? Here’s what political science can tell us,” The Washington Post, June 27, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/06/27/does-incivility-hurt-democracy-heres-what-political-science-can-tell-us/?utm_term=.9c6f75e219cc.

[6] Id.

[7] Thomas Jefferson, A Manual of Parliamentary Practice, Section XVII, 1873.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Gregory Krieg, Trump-Clinton nasty? Not compared to these campaigns, CNN, September 23, 2016, https://www.cnn.com/2016/09/23/politics/election-2016-personal-attacks/index.html 

[12] Id.

[13] C. James Taylor, John Adams:  Campaigns and Elections, UVA Miller Cente, https://millercenter.org/president/adams/campaigns-and-elections.

[14] History.com, Jefferson & Adams:  Founding Frenemies, November 2, 2016, https://www.history.com/news/jefferson-adams-founding-frenemies.

[15] C. James Taylor, John Adams:  Campaigns and Elections, UVA Miller Cente, https://millercenter.org/president/adams/campaigns-and-elections.

[16] History.com, Jefferson & Adams:  Founding Frenemies, November 2, 2016, https://www.history.com/news/jefferson-adams-founding-frenemies.

[17] Our latest fact-checks, Politifacts, https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/.

[18] Id.

[19] FactCheck.org, https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/?page=2.

[20] FactCheck.org, https://www.factcheck.org/

[21] FactCheck.org, Our Mission, https://www.factcheck.org/about/our-mission/

[22] Id.

[23] FactCheck.org, home page, October 21, 2018, https://www.factcheck.org.

[24] https://www.realclearpolitics.com/fact_check_review/

[25] Real Clear Politics, Fact Check Review Methodology, https://www.realclearpolitics.com/fact_check_review_methodology.html

[26] Real Clear Politics, Fact Check Review Quick Guide:  Getting Started, https://www.realclearpolitics.com/fact_check_review_quick_guide.html

[27] https://mediabiasfactcheck.com or https://www.allsides.com/media-bias/media-bias-ratings

[28] The Kansas City Star Editorial Board, New ad taking aim at Sen. Claire McCaskill is beyond disgusting, The Kansas City Star, July 31, 2018, https://www.kansascity.com/opinion/editorials/article215840975.html

[29] https://www.google.com/search?q=Clair+McCaskill+%22domestic+violence%22+husband&rlz=1C1JZAP_enUS789US793&oq=Clair+McCaskill+%22domestic+violence%22+husband&aqs=chrome..69i57.11550j0j8&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

[30] Id.

[31] “Alleged” is used to describe the victim because Claire McCaskill’s husband was not convicted, and in fact he was never even charged.

[32] Id.

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