Modern American Political Discourse

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Is George Bush a fundamentalist Christo-fascist dictator, intent on shredding the Constitution? Is John Kerry a "Hanoi John" communist who secretly aims to destroy our military? Considering how many people would answer "yes" to artfully subdued (and thoroughly poll-tested) variations of one of those questions, it is worth examining the polarization of American political discourse over the past several years.

Rather than becoming more united, as we were in the wake of 9/11, our political opinions have continued to diverge. "Red states" and "blue states" may be demographic and geographic fictions in a larger sense, but on another level they represent a populace fracturing itself into opposing camps that seem bent on exaggerating both their own virtues and their opponents' vices. Inevitably, it seems, discussions of political issues degenerate into accusations of either Stalinism or Naziism.

An interesting aspect of this tendency is Godwin's Law, which states: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." As explained on Wikipedia:

"There is a tradition in many Usenet newsgroups that once such a comparison is made in a thread the thread is over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress. Godwin's Law thus practically guarantees the existence of an upper bound on thread length in those groups."

If only a similar tradition applied in the offline world: one that stigmatized unwarranted comparisons to totalitarians on the far left - as in McCarthyism and its modern variants - as well as those on the far right.

Bush said during the 2000 campaign, "We have to do something to change the tone of the discourse," adding that "politics doesn't have to be ugly and mean." In his inaugural address, he stated:

"A civil society demands from each of us good will and respect, fair dealing and forgiveness. [...] Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment. It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos."

Rhetoric aside, George "major-league asshole" Bush and Dick "fuck yourself" Cheney are not exactly shining examples of a genuine desire for civil discourse. (John "these guys are the most crooked...lying group I've ever seen" Kerry doesn't have much credibility on this issue, either.)

The titles of some recent books indicate the enmity with which political commentators misrepresent and summarily dismiss each other's opinions. Some prominent conservative authors describe liberalism and liberals as:

guilty of "treason," "treachery," and "slander" (Ann Coulter),

"assaulting" our "borders, language, and culture" (Michael Savage),

"useful idiots" who "blame America" (Mona Charen),

guilty of "persecution" and "waging war against Christianity" (David Limbaugh),

an "evil" that must be "defeated" (Sean Hannity),

being an "enemy within" and "assaulting" "our schools, faith, and military" (Savage),

waging a "war" against "liberty" (Hannity),

responsible for "American decline" (Robert Bork), and

"assaulting" "our culture and values" and "free speech and free minds" (Tammy Bruce).

Conservatives are currently the worst offenders in terms of inflammatory, inaccurate, and borderline libelous book titles, but liberals are quickly descending to the same rhetorical level. Left-wing titles such as The Bush-Hater's Handbook, Thieves in High Places, and The I Hate Republicans Reader may be exercises in attention-getting hyperbole, but they do nothing to elevate the tone of political discourse. How will we discuss the important issues of the day when this overly simplistic red-versus-blue, right-versus-wrong, us-versus-them attitude dominates both ends of the political spectrum? What can be done now that exhortations to "take back America" come from both the right and the left?

At first glance, it might appear wisest to avoid talking about hot-button topics, instead deferring to the opinions of partisan pundits. The well-known admonition to avoid discussing religion and politics may seem to foster civility; actually, it reinforces the status quo by silencing those who would otherwise disagree. As philosopher Bertrand Russell mentions below, unquestioned acceptance of convention (as well as automatic rejection of it) constitutes obedience to the opinions of others. In this narrowly divided election year, we need more discussion and debate - not unquestioning reliance on demagogues and their mass-media echo chamber.

Ignoring or demonizing each other doesn't aid understanding; only dialogue can do that. We must be more willing - as a nation - to understand each others' opinions and, when we disagree, to do so with civility instead of contempt.

Thanks for reading.

Quote of the Day:

"I think that in general, apart from expert opinion, there is too much respect paid to the opinion of others, both in great matters and in small ones. One should respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways. [...] There is of course no point in deliberately flouting public opinion; this is still to be under its domination, though in a topsy-turvy way. But to be genuinely indifferent to it is both a strength and a source of happiness. And a society composed of men and women who do not bow too much to the conventions is a far more interesting society than one in which all behave alike."

Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on August 13, 2004 4:55 PM.

George Will's "Questions for Kerry" was the previous entry in this blog.

"Unfit for Command" and the "Swift Boat Vets" Campaign is the next entry in this blog.

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