Political discourse must improve, but let’s not overreach

January 17, 2011

In the aftermath of last week’s shooting in Tuscon, Arizona, some people have been quick to heap some degree of responsibility for the horrendous event on right wing leaders like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Sharron Angle, and Michelle Bachmann. A good number of Americans claim violence-charged rhetoric practiced by those four public figures is at least partially responsible for creating the vicious environment that led Jared Lee Loughner to critically wound Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, injure more than a dozen, and kill six others.

The harsh rhetoric (and symbolism) people speak of is exemplified by the following. Palin once told her supporters “Don’t Retreat; Reload!,” and also created a map with a gun target on Giffords’ district. Beck has consistently used war-like language . Angle agreed with an interviewer that there are “domestic enemies” in Congress and remarked that concerned citizens might turn to “Second Amendment remedies,” following that by stating that Harry Reid was the first person that needed to be taken out. And Bachmann has called for her supporters to be “armed and dangerous.”

We have no reason to believe that any of the above is causally linked to the shooting. This is not necessarily because evidence does not exist. We simply do not yet know, as the investigation is just getting underway (I suspect we will never know, if only because it is very difficult to directly link political rhetoric to a single crime). So, for the sake of this essay let’s consider that the rhetoric from Palin, Beck, Angle, and Bachmann, is not tied to the Giffords shooting whatsoever.** Let’s focus on the rhetoric and its impact on political discourse.

There are three main problems with the form of speech we are considering. First, while this rhetoric might not be directly linked to last week’s act, it certainly doesn’t do anything to lessen the chances of violence. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has aptly described it as “eliminationist rhetoric,” in which others are not merely wrong, but are no longer within our circle of moral concern. It is not hard to ponder the potential consequences of thinking this way. Even if the shooter was driven by some other motive, the aforementioned leaders have created a hyper-charged political environment that increases the chances of people engaging in violent political acts (though these acts might never happen due to a range of other factors, like being foiled by law enforcement). Research seems to bear this out .

Second, eliminationist rhetoric creates an environment where lawmakers and their families are scared for their lives. Politico.com reported via FBI documents that threats against members of Congress were up by 300 percent in the second half of 2010. In Arizona specifically, political leaders and judges were consistently getting death threats (read more here and here ). This undoubtedly influences a politician’s ability to speak his or her mind about any issue, especially hot-button ones.

Which brings me to the third problem: this rhetoric is inherently dangerous in an open democracy that depends on citizens constantly being in dialogue. It does not create the atmosphere where we might have constructive political discourse that could help us solve some of our daunting problems.

We are not forced to accept this landscape. We can change things. We live in a sharply divided social climate, but we have more in common than we think (for more on this point, I suggest the introduction of this book ). And while we might stoutly disagree with others, we can’t let ourselves so easily place fellow Americans – fellow human beings – outside the domain of our moral concern. We can state our disagreements over ideas without so much personal aggression. Indeed, we have no other choice if we truly desire to make a better country.

But let us not go too far and only be willing to accept a political discourse that is nice and neat. The problem with so-called eliminationist rhetoric is not that it is ugly; it is that it goes well beyond ugly. As Keith Olbermann said , “the (current) rhetoric has devolved and descended, past the ugly and past the threatening and past the fantastic and into the imminently murderous.” It would be one thing if the four people mentioned above were passionately engaged in serious and heated political debate about significant issues. Instead, they have stepped well beyond that confine.

Politics has always been, and will remain, both intense and partially if not mostly unpleasant. This is the very nature of political interactions. We bring our most important beliefs and values to the political square, and firmly promote and defend them in an effort to create the social and political order we want. In doing this, we must face people, principles and laws that we strongly disagree with. Sometimes we use insults and poor wording. Some of this is understandable, if not justified; some of it is neither. But this state of affairs is acceptable so long as we are still focused on discussing the matters that most influence our national life. Within that framework, we can accept some ugliness, and a few mistakes. The recent problems have emerged because people have often stepped well outside that framework.

Yet despite the fact that American politics is and will remain unpleasant, we can afford to turn a soft corner on language use. Words matter, and while our language can never be perfect, we need not be monsters. Recognition of this distinction would be the first step in the right direction. Even FOX News President Roger Ailes has told his employees to “tone it down.” Unfortunately, it took the murder of six people, and the injuries of more than a dozen others, to wake Americans from their zombie-like walk into the rhetorical abyss. Hopefully, we will awaken before it is too late.

** Still, Palin’s reaction to the shooting is telling. Immediately following the tragedy, the Web site hosting the gun scope map, www.takebackthe20.com, was taken down (as of this writing, it is still down).

Note: this essay was originally published on the blog Rationally Speaking.