In the era of brash intolerance, when a presidential candidate says he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a vote, could Indiana be poised as an island of civility?
Our history has sunk and risen on both sides of the political mayhem equation. When President Andrew Johnson’s “Swing Around the Circle” tour came to Indianapolis on Sept. 10, 1866, to push his mid-term election Reconstruction policies, it came after he compared himself to Jesus Christ, accused the Republicans as his betrayers; and defended himself against unmade accusations of tyranny. Britannica noted the Indianapolis “crowd was so hostile and loud that Johnson was unable to speak at all; even after he retreated, violence and gunfire broke out in the streets between Johnson supporters and opponents, resulting in one man’s death.”
In U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s April 4, 1968, extemporaneous speech in Indianapolis where he informed a campaign crowd of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he quoted the ancient playwright Aeschylus: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” Dozens of other cities erupted in violence, but Indianapolis remained calm.
This past year we’ve seen Latino Hoosier students taunted at Hammond and Columbus, and an anti-Trumper vandalize his own church in Beanblossom.
Amidst the age of Donald Trump, even here in Mike Pence’s Indiana, there are calls for renewed civility. In his State of the State address, Gov. Eric Holcomb explained, “Going forward, I’m going to view civility as the very foundation that all five pillars I just described rise up from. I’m convinced that our ultimate goals — this ambitious to-do list — will remain elusive unless we stay open to different points of views, treat each other with respect and focus not on what divides us, but on what we have in common.”
During his Organization Day speech, House Speaker Brian Bosma noted that political attacks were posted on his mother’s funeral remembrance page. “That’s exactly how low we’ve gotten,” he said. “I refuse to participate in the long spiral to uncivil conduct in political life.”
Last October, Purdue President Mitch Daniels gave the Ian Rolland Lecture in Fort Wayne, honoring the legendary businessman, community leader and philanthropist. As he did at his February 2011 CPAC “Red Menace” speech, the former Indiana governor sounded prudent alarms and offered aspiration.
“Democracy, as we’ve known it, government by the people — of, by, and for the people someone said — is not the natural state of affairs in world history,” Daniels said. “The founders were painfully aware of this. Even as they took these risks they were dubious that this experiment could last for long. John Adams said maybe two generations.”
Connecticut’s Oliver Ellsworth warned that if Americans become “ignorant, idle and vicious,” then we would be “easy business to reduce us to obey tyrants.” New York Magazine’s Andrew Sullivan observes that the emerging “tribalism” is in reality the “default human experience.”
“How did we get here?” Daniels asked. “I think there were some natural causes, some society changes that have simply led to Americans being more divided, more suspicious, even hostile to each other.” We marry alike, gather economically and racially.
He points that in 2012 only 5 percent of America’s 3,000 counties had outcomes in the presidential vote within 5 percent plus or minus. Only 10 percent were within 10 percent or more. “In the vast majority of American geographies, it was not close.”
Slathered on top in 280 tweeted characters is social media, or what Daniels calls “anti-social media” that “encourages the worst tendencies. People will say things that they would never say face to face with someone. Lincoln might have been worried about the worst angels of our nature if he had seen today’s social media.”
“I told a number of friends, who were deeply disappointed by the outcome of the last election, ‘You know, if you look down your nose at people long enough, one day they will punch you in it.’
“We awaken to find ourselves in this place where mere disagreements have been elevated to fatal character flaws,” Daniels continued.
He believes Hoosiers can calm the national affliction.
“Is there a chance that Indiana could be different?” Daniels asks. “That we could strike a different direction, a different tone, perhaps with different results that at least separate us from what I believe is a dangerous new direction in the country?”
This comes in a state where the last four winning gubernatorial campaigns by Daniels, Vice President Pence and Holcomb resisted the urge to go negative. Daniels said of his three campaigns that he “never ran a television ad that attacked anyone’s character, motives or background.”
“So maybe our contribution here in Indiana, our way of ‘resisting’ is to avoid the vilification, tribalism, that for now at least seems to be strengthening in the country is to keep on keeping on in the way we have. Maybe we can be a sanctuary for civility in a nation that seems to have very few,” Daniels said.
“We don’t yet need another Lincoln. Although it’s quite possible that if things don’t change, we will have to pray for one.”