Tamping down the animus

If you’re a Facebook regular, you’ve no doubt been treated to a barrage of politically charged pictures, quotes and opinions. Frankly, I’ve been stunned at some of the things people have posted. Some are junkyard-dog-mean, vulgar and irresponsible. Despite calls from both sides to tone down the rhetoric, the opposite seems to be happening. In fact, the omnipresence of social media seems to have liberated our nastiest sides and ratcheted up the acrimony.

But has it really?

In an interesting post earlier this month, William E. White of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, debunked the modern consensus that the current political firestorm is worse than any other. He writes: “Partisanship and rancor are not new. We have not fallen from some republican ideal into a new style of debauchery.”

If we’re such smart Americans, then why don’t we know this?

The reason, White writes, is that “Americans are a terribly ahistorical people.” We really don’t know our history. White explains further:

That does not justify the way modern politicians attack each other, but if we provided a decent American history and civics education in this country, twenty-first-century American citizens would at least recognize the historical roots of our current situation. Most, however, are woefully ignorant about our past and the way in which elections are conducted. Most don’t understand that the electoral process has changed dramatically over time. Nor do they understand that most voting requirements are established by states, not the federal government. People are amazed to learn that, until 1913 and the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, most U.S. senators were appointed by state legislatures, not elected by the people.

White goes on to say, “If we believe there is too much rancor in politics, the people must demand a change. We are the American people and American history is the only way for us to understand the responsibilities we hold for insuring the future of the republic.”

One JMU alum is taking a step toward the positive change that White suggests. Patrick Spero (’00), assistant professor of history and leadership studies at Williams College, teaches an experimental course on the American presidency “using the latest technology to create campaign ads for presidential elections from Washington to Lincoln,” he explains.

Employing all the advantages of modern technology, Spero’s students recreate earlier political campaigns that are historically accurate. Quite a challenge certainly, but what an interesting and enlightening one.

So if we are going to change the rhetoric, the tenor and tone of our political discourse, maybe we should start by knowing what we’re talking about, like Spero’s students. Maybe understanding history will give us the knowledge and context to change things. Maybe it will give us more thoughtful avenues of discussion and maybe, just maybe, it will tamp down the animus. It’s worth a shot.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a timelier or more interesting opportunity in this election cycle to be the change.

To learn more:

Colonial Williamsburg is offering an electronic field trip about the election of 1800, Gift to the Nation.

To learn much more about Patrick Spero’s work and his class, click on the links below:




To read the entire text of the blog, which appeared in the Aug. 14, 2012, Huffington Post, click the embedded link.

About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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