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The end of civilization? Really?

“Civilization as we know it today would be in jeopardy if Republicans win the Senate.”

– REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI, House minority leader

Pelosi delivered that line on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. Maher, who makes no secret of his own Democratic leanings, seemed surprised himself, following up with what appeared an absurd comparison: “This and ISIS are threatening civilization?”

To which Pelosi then responded, “Yeah, it is really important.”

Ugh. Equating Republicans to the murderous thugs who beheaded James Foley, Alan Hennin, and David Haines? It seems so out of bounds, so repugnant as to beggar belief. Indeed, watch the clip of Maher’s show and one suspects from Pelosi’s tone of voice and body language that she was just making a ham-handed attempt at humor.

She’s not much of a natural comedian, however. Her laughter as she delivered her lines sounded more diabolical — think Dr. Evil — than ho-ho-ho. And to be frank, under the theory that there’s often an element of truth behind every joke, one has to wonder whether Pelosi really does believe what she said. If so, her world may be soon upended; most political handicappers give better than even chances that this November the Senate in fact will turn Republican.

Pelosi’s language was yet another example of the hyper-partisanship that grips our politics. Granted, it’s an equal opportunity problem. It’s not only that each party uses mockery and caricatures of the other’s leaders to whip up their bases (John Boehner and Pelosi are both frequent targets). That’s campaign stuff and, while offensive, is almost to be expected.

But what happens on the campaign trail no longer stays on the campaign trail. President Obama refuses to engage Republicans, governing through executive order on matters such as immigration. The GOP talks of impeachment and won’t even confirm ambassadors for nations such as Turkey and Sierra Leone. A dense and nasty cloud of vituperation hangs over Washington.

Some will argue that this is nothing new, and they have a point. Politics in the 19th century was sometimes especially brutal. In 1856, for example, South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks nearly beat to death Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner. But many of the arguments back then were over slavery, an issue that brooked no compromise and ultimately led to the Civil War.

Through much of the 20th century, however, our politics was far less partisan. Back in the mid-1900s, according to researchers from Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute, Congress was largely dominated by centrists. Today, both parties have become more polarized — the average Republican member is more conservative and the average Democratic member is more liberal (although to a lesser degree).

In addition, as congressional districts become safer for each party (a reflection of both gerrymandering and the way that people of like values tend to congregate together), the extreme members of each party find it even easier to get elected, pushing away moderates and further fueling divisions.

These changes in Congress reflect changes in America. One might think that the pervasiveness of mass communication and social networking would mean that we as a nation increasingly share common values and outlooks. But things actually seem to be going in the opposite direction.

A June report from the Pew Research Center found that, when it comes to ideology, over the last 20 years Americans have grown progressively apart. On a variety of key issues, the average Republican and Democrat were not that different back in 1994, for example, while today the gap between them has widened considerably. Tellingly, the number of individuals who identify themselves as “consistently” liberal or conservative (as opposed to having a mixed bag of beliefs) has grown as well.

Nevertheless, civility and disagreement are not mutually incompatible. Politics, after all, is the art of bridging divides. And good politicians, even while holding true to their beliefs, need to respect and engage with those from the other side of the aisle.

That’s what makes Pelosi’s words so disturbing. They demonize the opposition, making it that much harder to find common ground. There’s no simple cure for D.C.’s partisan ills, but here’s a start: Kidding or not, Pelosi should apologize.

© 2014 The Boston Globe

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