In his first speech after the U.S. presidential election, Joe Biden asked all Americans to end “this grim era of demonization.” It was a timely request for civility given the vilification of candidates during the campaign. His call also opens a door for more constructive debate over policy in Washington.
Yet what stood out was that he did not name names. He did not shame anyone but rather merely pointed to the practice of name-calling, not the people who do it. He kept the demon of demonization separate from those who resort to it – with a certainty that it could melt away.
“Let’s give each other a chance,” Mr. Biden said, by listening to each other.
The moment was similar to a famous speech 70 years ago by Sen. Margaret Chase Smith on the Senate floor. The Republican from Maine asked her party to “do some soul-searching” and not ride to power on character assassination and unsubstantiated accusations of treason. She did not name her Republican colleague Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who was using public fear of communism to subvert his enemies. In fact, by not doing so she better exposed the emptiness of what is now called McCarthyism, or accusations unrooted in truth. Soon after, Mr. McCarthy’s crusade collapsed.
In both politics and diplomacy, it is still common to portray someone as “the other,” as not quite capable of good qualities to lead or open to change. But as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted in 2014, the demonization of Russian leader Vladimir Putin in the United States is not a policy, “it’s an alibi for not having a policy.”
Personal attacks, or what political scientists call “negative partisanship,” are often an attempt to win a debate other than on merits. Mr. Biden himself has admitted he has struggled with separating the political from the personal. He often tells the story from his early years in the Senate when a colleague, Sen. Jesse Helms, denounced a bill granting rights to Americans with disabilities. An angry Senator Biden was ready to attack him for lacking empathy when Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield took Mr. Biden aside to inform him that Senator Helms had adopted a child with a disability.
“It is always appropriate to question another man or woman’s judgment. It’s never appropriate to judge the motive because you don’t know what it is,” Senator Mansfield said.
Negative stereotypes about others are often a fantasy. A recent poll by Beyond Conflict, a Boston-based nonprofit, found 79% of Democrats and 82% of Republicans overestimate the level to which the other side dehumanizes them. Scholars note that this practice occurs less in small states like Vermont where people tend to know each other or anticipate working with each other. In fact, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont was perhaps the most vocal presidential candidate against demonizing comments.
Mr. Mansfield told Mr. Biden one other thing in 1973. “Your job here is to find the good things in your colleagues – the things their state saw – and not focus on the bad.” Mr. Biden said it was “the single most important piece of advice I got in my career.” Now, as he heads toward the Oval Office, he is passing along that advice to all Americans.