Politicians must be held accountable

Maybe it’s time to retire the phrase “political correctness.” Or at least let’s come up with a definition of political correctness that most people can abide by.

This is presidential candidate Donald Trump at last Thursday’s Republican debate refusing to apologize for referring to women in degrading terms: “I think the big problem this country has – is being politically correct. And I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”

Trump, who currently holds center stage in the Republican primary campaign, is an extreme example of what FOX News moderator Megyn Kelly referred to as someone who doesn’t “use a politician’s filter.” In an arena where candidates for office often seem to be over-scripted automatons who are so afraid of offending potential voters that they put us to sleep, Trump is the anomaly.

He appears willing to say anything that enters his head. And many voters are rewarding him for that, catapulting him to the top of the GOP polls.

Critics, however, see something else in the Trump phenomenon – a near-total absence of common civility, an unnecessary crudeness, a disdain for sensitivity regarding the feelings of others, a failure to distinguish fact from fiction and, ultimately, a critical breakdown in the political process. Call it unadulterated political incorrectness.

But the notion that so-called political correctness is preventing public officials from speaking the truth and stifling the political discussion is larger than Trump. It seems to have become a matter of faith among a large group of Americans, many of them conservatives, who see any effort to bring decorum to the debate and avoid unfairly offending whole groups of people as impeding free speech.

We understand the hunger for openness, frankness, the right to speak one’s mind without fear of being shouted down by some special interest group or another. We agree that the public debate should include more straight talk.

But too many people – Trump in particular – try to use their alleged contempt for political correctness as something of a “get out of jail free” card, an excuse to say anything they want without being censured for it. Free speech is one thing, but scorning political correctness doesn’t give a politician unlimited license to say things that are offensive and untrue about women, minorities, ethnic groups and others.

Trump’s rocket is likely to fizzle at some point before the end of the primary season. Even with someone as impervious to criticism as he is, politicians ultimately have to be held accountable for what they say. And it seems likely that fellow Republicans will be among those demanding accountability from Trump.

But we hope that even before that happens, the rhetoric will be toned down a notch. Contrary to what Trump says, the nation could use a little more political correctness – or whatever people choose to call it.