Smile Politely

Rodney Davis and the myth of “vitriolic rhetoric”

“Vitriolic rhetoric” has become a buzzword in Illinois’ 13th Congressional District. Let’s count the uses:

  • Why do the topics we agree on appear to dwindle each day? Vitriolic rhetoric.
  • Why are my comments on Rep. Davis’ Facebook page censored? Easy, vitriolic rhetoric.
  • Why we can’t have a public town hall? You guessed it: vitriolic rhetoric.

The phrase has only picked up steam since Rep. Davis coined it in June. “Vitriolic rhetoric” is a verbal Swiss-army knife. It doubles as an inflatable moral high ground you can use in any political conversation, and it has also been used to regulate how constituents in the 13th District exercise their First Amendment rights. Last week, Rep. Davis sent a template email to constituents frustrated with his censored constituent Facebook page. “As you know, the commenting and comment-viewing abilities are no longer available on my Facebook page,” the letter explained, “This is because of the hateful rhetoric and messages that were being spread through my Facebook page.” As he has done on many occasions, Rep. Davis cited the June 14th shooting and the opportunities social media affords as the key culprits.

There, I’ve done it. I’ve summoned the specter of the shooting at the congressional baseball practice, and just like that, you’re imagining Rep. Davis in his dusty baseball gear. It’s this pavlovian reaction that prevents us from calling out the elephant in the room–  Rep. Davis hasn’t had an office hours event since the shooting. These events were inadequate excuses for a town hall to begin with, but we now have no way to bring our concerns to Rep. Davis in person as the 115th Legislative Session marches on.

In this post, I grab the 13th Congressional District’s third rail: If June’s shooting is one reason Rep. Davis is not engaging in the democratic process, it’s time for him to find a new line of work.

As a Ph.D. candidate studying political rhetoric at UIUC, I get worried when I hear my Representative describe social media comments from dissenting constituents as “vitriolic rhetoric,” barriers to the goal of bipartisan solutions, as he did on Morning Joe. History is littered with examples of people in power using unclear standards of civility and bipartisanship to alienate “unruly” dissenting groups (See President Nixon’s Great Silent Majority speech). Associated with political polarization and impulsiveness that can lead to violence, calls for civility appeal to the idea that representatives should be insulated from hostile constituents, they should not, for example, be accosted while having a meal, as in the August 23 State Journal Register editorial. Rep. Rodney Davis was quick to repost the article, which mentioned Davis’ recent comments on bipartisanship. “We can disagree w/o being disagreeable,” Davis added. Like Lucy setting up the football for Charlie Brown, the line between what is “civil” and “uncivil” is often strategically maneuvered by those in power. The result? Constituents are tricked into blaming themselves. The responsibility for “uncivil” exchanges lands squarely on the shoulders of the constituent– the one with the least power in the exchange. The question of what behaviors or actions the person is responding to are never considered.

Like these superficial calls for civility, Rep. Davis’ well-documented refusals to hold any public event that allows his constituents to gather en masse are rooted in one bad-take on US democracy that just won’t seem to die. We can trace it back to James Madison.

As the Framers debated what form of governance our fledgling nation should take on, Madison struggled with the concept of democracy. On one hand, Madison knew that democracy required people to gather– without that feature we would revert back to a monarchy. On the other hand, Madison was terrified this very feature would lead to the unraveling of the nation so many in his generation had fought and labored for. In an age where tarring and feathering British representatives was common practice, Madison was concerned that choosing a form of government predicated on the gathering of citizens in large numbers to make decisions would lead to mob-rule (See Federalist Papers number 10 and 14). I’d imagine Madison would sympathize with Rep. Davis’ concerns about social media, and he’d certainly understand the desire to avoid critical constituents (Madison’s signature on the Sedition Acts of 1798 is regarded as a cinder on his legacy).

Thankfully, James Madison’s better angels won while drafting our Constitution. On June 8, 1789, James Madison walked into the House of Representatives and presented his proposal for a Bill of Rights to the Constitution. Putting aside his concerns with public gatherings, Madison moved to protect citizens’ “right to assemble.” Madison made this right explicit because he knew without freedom of expression and the right assemble and to petition, a democracy would cease to be a democracy: “I think we should obtain the confidence of our fellow citizens, in proportion as we fortify the rights of the people against the encroachments of the government,” Madison clarified in his address to Congress that same month.

That first part of the Madison quote is crucial. Just as King George III aggravated American Colonists from afar (these offenses are listed in the Declaration of Independence), a lack of opportunities to petition the person tasked with representing our interests in a representative government breeds distrust, indignation, and yes, hostility. No one is born knowing how to have productive democratic exchanges, Madison knew future generations would have to figure it out through trial and error (See Federalist 10). The solution was to ensure US citizens didn’t give up the struggle of democracy– Each generation must have opportunities to practice meaningful democratic exchanges if the Great American Experiment would continue.

Yes, democracy is messy, loud, and at times, hostile, but siphoning public access and censoring constituents does nothing to clean up the process. We must keep practicing democracy.

If Rep. Davis really wants to solve the political polarization in his district, he must first obtain the confidence of his constituents, even the angry ones, by making himself accessible. Rep. Davis should hold as many town halls as it takes to restore a sense of trust between himself and constituents. He must stop preventing people from practicing democracy in person and online. He must allow social media platforms to work as they are intended—a public square open to all– and instead trust the community standards already enforced by Facebook. The censorship his office practices is not only actively contributing to the dysfunction he decries in his own district, by Madison’s design, it may very well be unconstitutional.

Rep. Davis cannot expect his constituents to trust or respect him when he practices censorship, whether it be by brick-and-mortar office walls, blocking comments on Facebook, or cherry-picking questions in a virtual tele-town hall. Democracy only works when a relationship of respect and trust true exists between representatives and their constituents. Only by gathering en masse is true civility cultivated, it cannot be enforced by exclusion and condescending remarks.

Rep. Davis has been dodging town hall style events long before June’s shooting. Instead of hiding behind a gunman, Davis must summon a dose of the bravery it took Madison to put aside his fears and argue for the Bill of Rights or step aside for someone else who can.

The author does not represent the opinions of the University of Illinois or the UIUC Department of Communication.

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