When I hear the ridiculous, juvenile rants coming out of the Republican presidential campaign -- Donald Trump ridiculing Marco Rubio’s mouth and his ears, Rubio ridiculing Trump’s face and the size of Trump’s hands -- I hear the culmination of more than two decades of decline in public discourse to a place where crude invective and ad hominem attack have become standard.
It’s what P.M. Forni, the Johns Hopkins University professor, warned about when he started writing about the loss of civility in American society in the 1990s.
There once was a way, with eloquence and wit, for a politician to challenge an opponent. In 2016, on the Republican side, there’s snark, not eloquence. And bratty cracks about your opponent’s hair pass for “wit.”
Presidential campaigns have been about candidate image and marketing for a long time, but, even in the mass media age, they were still regarded as quadrennial assessments of the nation’s status and its ambitions, a time for the consideration of ideas and priorities. On the Republican side -- the side that’s making the most noise -- we hear bold assertions and jingoistic nonsense, not real ideas. More time is spent in general condemnation of President Barack Obama than in presenting a course for the future.
This is the culmination of the coarsening of public comment over two-plus decades.
If what you’re hearing from the Republicans this year sounds like conservative talk radio and testy talking-head cable programming, there’s a good reason for that. Consider how much the mean, snarky rhetoric of talk radio has infested public discourse. Anyone remember Rush Limbaugh suggesting that Chelsea Clinton would be the new White House dog? That was 24 years ago. Ms. Clinton was but 12 years old at the time. Before Limbaugh came along, children of public figures had been off limits as targets for public ridicule. All that has changed in the last two decades -- virtually no one is spared now -- with radio and television talkers becoming increasingly crude and Internet trolls lowering the standards even further.
Maybe you find all this entertaining. On some level, who doesn’t enjoy pithy political commentary with an edge? But when the candidates for president sound like talk-radio hosts and TV talking heads, we’ve arrived at some deep, dank place in American history, and we ought to consider getting a lift out of here.
At the same time, I’m struck by the contrast between the Republican presidential campaign and the campaign for mayor of Baltimore. Don’t look now, but a contest that, at first cynical glance, looked to be something of a local ho-hum has settled into a real contest of solid candidates and ideas.
Many dismissed the campaign as the same-old-same-old, mostly because of former Mayor Sheila Dixon’s decision to seek the office she held before her disgrace of 2010.
But, with the primary election coming one year (almost to the day) after last spring’s uprising in West Baltimore following the funeral of Freddie Gray, the campaign has attracted some new and interesting candidates -- businessman David Warnock, attorney and former city prosecutor Elizabeth Embry, City Councilman Nick Mosby, activist DeRay Mckesson -- and they’ve all presented some good ideas for the next four years.
In fact, in interviewing them, I’ve had the thought that combined, they’d probably make a great mayor. Warnock has interesting ideas about creating private-sector jobs; Embry has strong ideas for making the city safer; Mckesson, whose background is in education, has good suggestions for improving schools and the training of police officers; Mosby has just a lot of good ideas generally.
Baltimore primary voters have some good candidates to chose from -- City Councilman Carl Stokes and state Sen. Catherine Pugh among them -- and they all seem to know that the same-old-same-old won’t do. Baltimoreans are looking for new answers to old problems.
Ms. Dixon will be sitting for a podcast interview with me this week -- as several other candidates already have -- and we’ll hear what she has to say about the city’s biggest challenges: stemming poverty, reducing crime, getting better results from the schools.
I suppose anything looks good in contrast to the Republican presidential campaign. But, so far, the Baltimore mayoral campaign has turned out to offer more substance than we expected. So far, no hectoring, no schoolyard rants, nothing personal. If it stays that way, and focused on ideas, it will be a great service to Baltimoreans, no matter who wins.