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Invective and Violence in American Politics Is Nothing New

May 19, 2016, 6:03 PM UTC
Photograph by Rob Kerr—AFP via Getty Images

Reports of violence and unruly behavior by Bernie Sanders supporters at last weekend’s Nevada Democratic Convention have sounded the alarm bells over the heated rhetoric and incivility in the 2016 presidential campaign. Such behavior is not restricted to one party. There are the videos of Donald Trump fans attacking protestors and footage of Trump himself egging them on.

Sanders’ attacks on Clinton and Donald Trump’s condescending nicknames for his opponents have certainly played a part in the incivility in this election cycle.

Where has it all come from? In truth, politics and rudeness have been with us all along. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane.

During the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both lobbed vicious barbs at one another. The Jefferson campaign called Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Jefferson, meanwhile, was branded a “”a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

“Lyin’ Ted” and “Little Marco” seem like fun pet names now, don’t they?

Of course, things got even more heated among the founding fathers, as anyone who has sold a kidney to get Hamilton tickets can tell you: Alexander Hamilton and his political rival Aaron Burr actually dueled, leading to Hamilton’s death. Again, as much as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders may criticize one another, it is hard to imagine them pulling out pistols.

Sometimes American politics can be violent even when the campaign isn’t going on. Consider the caning of Charles Sumner. In 1856, inside the U.S. Capitol, Representative Preston Brooks, a supporter of slavery, took his cane and beat Sen. Charles Sumner almost to death.

There are more recent examples, too. Some are blaming Bernie Sanders for not reigning in supporters who have resorted to violence and chaos. In 1968, the same charges were levied by establishment Democrats against Eugene McCarthy, the anti-Vietnam War candidate who lost the nomination to Hubert Humphrey. McCarthy for months refused to support Humphrey, which some say galvanized his supporters — most of whom were young, progressive activists (sound familiar?). That boiled over at the Democratic National Convention that year, when Chicago police officers—under the orders of Mayor Richard J. Daley—clashed with protestors in scenes that were televised live.

So, while the pearl-clutching over Trump, Sanders, and the like may make for good headlines, don’t kid yourself — this is as much a part of the American political process as kissing babies and homecoming parades.