We have always had our outrageous demagogues, from Father Charles Coughlin spewing hatred on the radio in the 1930s to Sen. Theodore Bilbo (D-Miss.) spewing racist and white supremacist garbage on the Senate floor in the 1940s. Bilbo’s rhetoric no doubt contributed to violence and lynchings. But he was ostracized in the Senate, denounced by his own state colleague in the Senate and relegated to a minor committee. In other words, there was at least the concept of shame. There is no shame anymore, no punishment for those who step over the line with unacceptable charges or conduct. That the House did not step forward and overwhelmingly reprimand or even censure Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) for shouting “You lie!” at the president from the House floor is a sign of how we have redefined our common decency and respect for leaders and institutions.
We will no doubt get a moratorium on some of the worst charges and harsh accusations, for weeks or months. I would be very surprised if it lasted beyond that. What we need to do is rebuild a sense of shame so when media commentators and bookers and political actors come out of their shells again they understand there is some price to pay for being uncivil in our civil society.
Second, I hope, without much optimism, that we can also get at least one small reform — namely, that multi-bullet magazines, designed not for sporting purposes, target practice or self-defense, but only for killing or maiming lots of people, will be banned once again. It is incomprehensible to me that gun rights advocates can’t show even the slightest balance to protect lives, with a change that has nothing to do with the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment.
Third, I hope we can get a new dialogue about the mental health laws in the country that make it so difficult to get treatment for troubled individuals who, as a consequence of their illness, do not believe they are sick and refuse treatment and medication. The laws in the name of protecting the civil liberties of the mentally ill cause untold heartache and pain to those who are ill, to their families and to the society.
Finally, I hope it will not be too long before we can welcome Gabby back to the Hill, to add her considerable measure of warmth, decency and civility to a place that desperately needs it, and her.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.