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U.S. commentators grapple with rare political term: 'decency'

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This sounds like a story from The Onion but it's not. "Decency" has entered the U.S. presidential race and its appearance has startled the news media. "Compared to the GOP race, the heated contest of ideas between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders feels almost jarring in its decency and intelligence," runs a Rolling Stone cutline under an early July photo during the Democratic primary campaigns. 

After the Democratic convention, media kept coming back to the decency theme. Covering Tim Kaine's nomination, CNN quoted Virgina Senator Mark Warner: "I think you'll see somebody whose basic humanity and decency will come through." The Economist noted, "Rarely in recent times have America's fact-based media, on the left and right, its politicians, its armed forces and citizens' groups seemed so united, in a face-off between decency and rancour, as they do now."

Neil Gabler asked on the Bill Moyers website, "Did the media grasp the importance of the moment last night as the Democratic National Convention concluded? I don't mean the importance of the first woman major-party candidate being nominated for the presidency. On that score, I think they did pretty well.

"I mean the moment of rescue that the convention constituted -- the moment at which this country, now on a fulcrum, could either tip toward authoritarianism, hopeless division and chaos, or toward a more charitable and hopeful vision of the future.”

Gabler saw the Democrats making a clearcut "appeal to decency": the text was "Stronger Together." The subtext was that "we are a great people who must draw on our better angels even as Donald Trump appeals to our worst devils. 'America is great,' intoned Hillary Clinton last night in what may be the most succinct expression of this idea, 'because America is good.' This is a stirring idea, if a somewhat self-congratulatory one, and for those of us who want to believe that light beats dark, that hope beats fear, that good beats evil, that unity beats division, it should be a winning idea." But, Gabler warned, America is not like that.

Bill Maher even teased Hillary Clinton for her new public emphasis on caring and mothering. "Sweet grandma Hillary" might have worked in 2008, he said, but not in 2016. "Since half the country will believe an evil cartoon version of Hillary Clinton, no matter what she says or does, she has to embrace it," said Maher. Voters now want "a ruthless mafia boss who will protect their frightened souls."

If media were surprised to see "decency" enter the conversation, they and the public were soon smacked in the face by the disrespect the Republican candidate showed Khizr Khan, a Muslim Gold Star parent. With his wife by his side on the Democratic National Convention stage, Khan called out Donald Trump for wanting to ban Muslims and Mexicans from entering the U.S. 

Khizr and Ghazala Khan speak at Democratic National Convention"Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery?" Khan asked. "Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one." In his usual style, Donald Trump responded by attacking Khizr Khan, suggesting his wife Ghazala hadn't been allowed to speak. Khan handed him back the scorn. "He has no decency," said Khan. "He has a dark heart."

President Obama said something similar while addressing wounded veterans. He rebuked Trump for disrespecting a war hero's family, and for his general ignorance. Looking back at the 2008 and 2012 elections, the President said that if John McCain or Mitt Romney had won, "I would have said to all Americans: this is our president and I know they're going to abide by certain norms and rules and common sense, will observe basic decency, will have enough knowledge about economic policy and foreign policy and our constitutional traditions and rule of law that our government will work and then we'll compete four years from now to try and win an election. But that's not the situation here. And that’s not just my opinion. That is the opinion of many prominent Republicans."  

Billionaire Warren Buffet was among many who picked up the refrain: "I ask Donald Trump, 'Have you no decency, sir?'"  Buffet introduced Clinton at a rally, endorsed her, and pledged to drive at least 10 voters to the polls to vote for her.

After slurring the Khan family, the Republican candidate born with a silver foot in his mouth then stumbled into offhand suggestions that Russia should hack into the former Secretary of State's personal files, and that "Second Amendment people" (ie, gun owners) should take care of his political opponent. The steady stream of Republicans dissociating themselves from him rose to a raging torrent.

The Republican party plummeted over a precipice in public opinion polls. Secretary Clinton opened double-digit leads in key states. At this writing, FiveThirtyEight.com projects Clinton will win 87.5% of the vote in November.

"Decency, today, doesn't seem the strongest of words," writes Steven P Murphy in Prospect Magazine. "We know it means moral behavior carried out for -- and with respect for -- other people. Yet the moments in America's history of which we are most proud, those events when we have been compelled to join together to do the right thing, have not only been moments of triumph but also moments of decency. A culture of decency describes how we should wish to be seen by people of other nations."  

Decency and basic values as the central concerns in a U.S. election? No wonder the U.S. news media are confused. They're used to talking about tax cuts and horse race comparisons. Age of Aquarius, anyone?

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