Following last week’s attempted assassination of Republican congressmen by a progressively inclined shooter, our political discourse has again turned to the subjects of civility and hate. How have we gotten to this point—in which a Bernie Sanders supporter would attempt to kill politicians on the other side of the aisle? How could our presidential election foment enough hate and discord to result in the shooting of congressmen playing baseball?
Sixty-eight percent of American voters think our discourse is getting less civil, according to CBS News. Even more astounding, three-quarters of Americans think our current political discourse is encouraging violence—that number reflects the opinions of 85 percent of Democrats, and 68 percent of Republicans.
Meanwhile, Pew Research Center found that about one in four voters “strongly dislike” the other political party, even considering their political opponents “a threat to the nation’s wellbeing.” According to the Washington Post, that suggests a vehement dislike (even, perhaps, hate) for the political other among 78 million Americans.
The above data makes it clear we need to consider our political conversation, and the emotions driving it. We need to uncover more thoughtful ways to interact with each other, and means of conversation that don’t encourage fearmongering and bombast over thoughtfulness and compassion. This isn’t about standing around in a circle, holding hands and singing songs. It’s about preventing violence, hatred, and schisms that tear our country apart.
Stop Treating Politics Like Religion
In America, organized religion has slowly lessened in importance in people’s day-to-day lives. The number of people who attend church every week has dropped, and the Americans who identify themselves as “nones” (religiously speaking) is on the rise. Though many would still say they believe in God, that doesn’t guarantee regular participation in a church, mosque, or synagogue.
Meanwhile, political dogma is on the rise. We virtue signal not through religious adherence, but via protesting and voting. We treat our political ideologies not just as governing ideals for the nation but also, often, as private orthodoxies.
Ironically enough, I think this has its roots in the mingling of religious persuasion with politics: for quite some time, the American church has adopted the trappings of various political partisanships in order to spread their message and draw people to the pews. This was obviously true with the Moral Majority, whose political message aligned with Republicans’ platform. But more liberal churches have also built a platform and audience around social justice causes. Our politics have been defined alongside our religious beliefs for quite some time.
The downside to this? As religious participation has faded, the righteousness we associate with political belief has not. We’ve made our politics into our religion. More often than not, if you talk about guns and capitalism to a Bible-belt dweller, he or she will associate a sort of veneration with the Second Amendment and free markets. If you discuss economic inequality with a Brooklynite, you’ll likely hear a righteous indignation rise in their voice.
These sentiments aren’t wrong, necessarily. We’re passionate about what we believe because we think those beliefs have massive ramifications for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We want American citizens to have better, safer, freer lives.
But that’s the important point: pretty much all of us want that. Liberal and conservative. But because we’ve wrapped our politics in dogma, we’ve castigated the “other” beyond the point of peace. We’ve gotten to a point where the election of a four-year-term president has all the gravity and apocalyptic doom of a satanic messenger arriving on earth. To progressives who view their progressivism as religion, Donald Trump isn’t just a bad president, he’s the antichrist.
The Media Profits From Incendiary Fearmongering
This isn’t just the fault of Democratic or Republican citizens. The media, including journalists like myself, deserve much of the blame. We should be apologizing over and over again following last week’s shooting. We’ve made our audiences hate the “enemy,” the people on the other side of the political aisle, and we shouldn’t have.
Let me share an example to illustrate that point. Growing up in rural Idaho, a lot of parents I knew listened to talk radio in the car. When carpooling to sports tournaments, orchestra practice, or church camp, I’d listen to Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and others. While some hosts were more thoughtful and reasoned (thank you, Hugh Hewitt), most were angry and accusatory to the extreme. They interrupted, castigated, and jeered at people who thought differently than them. They were demeaning to the political left, and full of righteous indignation toward their ideas.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen this rhetoric’s effect on my community. When Barack Obama was elected president, various Republican pundits made it sound as if his election was the end of the world. I actually remember fearing that this progressive president would bring religious persecution and unbridled leftist dogma to bear on the United States. Looking back, that feels like a hysterical fear to me. Yes, Obama did some things as president that I strongly disagree with. But he was—like many of us—a well-intentioned person whose politics were aimed at helping, not hurting, people.
Sadly, a lot of pundits make out the political “other” to be evil and malevolent to a Disney-fied level. I have talked to Republicans who sincerely think Democrats are wicked. They believe that, had Hillary Clinton won the presidency, U.S. democracy as we know it would have already ceased to exist.
That may sound crazy to you (maybe, depending on your political inclinations and who you listen to on the radio, it doesn’t). But if you’re left-leaning, think for a moment: what are you regularly told about Trump? When Trump was elected last November, people started buying up copies of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.” When Hulu adapted Margaret Atwood’s classic novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” for a TV series, progressive reviewers called it “timely,” “chillingly real,” “scary as hell,” and predictive in the wake of Trump’s election.
New Yorker reviewer Emily Nussbaum wrote in her review of the series, “Our President is a Playboy-brash predator; his Vice-President is pure Gilead.” They suggested that Trump’s election would make a Gilead-ish future almost certain, and warned progressive women their rights could disappear overnight. (During the Women’s March, women carried signs that said, “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again.”) That, too, is fearmongering.
If religious conservatives thinking Hillary Clinton would make religious liberty extinct sounds crazy to you, progressives’ attitude toward Trump and “The Handmaid’s Tale” must be considered similarly crazy. There’s a nugget of truth inside every moment of hysteria, true enough. But there’s also hyperbole, all the same.
Media personalities use our fear to rake in money. Limbaugh wants you to believe he’s the only trustworthy source for news. That’s how he ensnares your ear and makes you an acolyte. That’s how he gets advertisers and book deals. When the Washington Post changes their motto post-Trump’s election to “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” they’re doing the same thing: trying to convince you that they’re the only trustworthy, faithful source of news. That without them, you’ll be mired in darkness, blind and unable to see. And if subscription rates are any indication, this sort of marketing is really working for newspapers and magazines around the United States.
But if you think this will help them produce an unbiased product, you’re wrong. What the Washington Post, the New York Times, and more conservative publications see is that clickbaity headlines sell. Especially if those headlines have “Trump” in the title. This means they’ll be tempted to give you more of the fearmongering, the incendiary controversy, the clickbait. That will help them sell their product. Sadly, it won’t help you get the truth.
Debate Online Less, and Seek Out Local Association
All of us—on both left and right—have married our political beliefs to religious, hysterical, apocalyptic language, and it’s not doing any of us a favor. It bogs down our political discourse, makes it almost impossible to discuss policies in a bipartisan or thoughtful fashion, and divides us unnecessarily over issues we could and should be able to agree on—or at least sympathize with.
American politics has always been imperfect, messy, elitist—you name it. But now, perhaps in part because of our inflationary, entertainment-centric media, we are more hyperbolic about these problems than ever before.
I don’t know exactly how to fix this. Consumers need to start demanding a better, more unbiased product. But that’s a tough sell, especially to people who already believe that they’re seeing news through the “correct” political prism. They don’t mind getting their “facts” from Rachel Maddow or Michael Savage, because they’re convinced that one or the other has their best interests at heart, is cutting through the falsity to deliver things “straight,” is seeing through the conspiracy of the other side, et cetera. How do you convince those people to take a step back and consider a different viewpoint?
Perhaps one answer lies in local, voluntary associations, because when we gather physically to discuss and debate around some common, local cause, it often softens our political opinions. We begin to see the gray space that exists between us, when what’s “Republican” or “Democrat” breaks down to serve different problems in different locales. The irony of these physical spaces is that, more often than not, they build a diverse and peculiar set of people whose beliefs are unique, exciting, and winsome.
Political rhetoric—at least in America today—is most often about “us versus them.” But if we consider the roots of political philosophy, the discipline is all about what unites us—what makes us human, and what makes us function best and most freely. You can have all sorts of schismatic conversations about the regulatory state, education, the federal government, the judiciary, and Congress. But I know few who’d disagree with Aristotle when he said that man was a “social animal,” made for community.
We all want and need community. If our politics makes community impossible, then perhaps we’ve gotten things a bit messed up. By arguing over what we think is best for the nation, we’re making that nation less cohesive, less connected, and therefore—in the long run—less free, and less able to pursue happiness.
This means both our media and our populace needs to demand and produce something different—a rhetoric not built around sensationalism and sales, but rather a dialogue that fosters thoughtfulness and reason, one that points out the good alongside the bad, and one that strives to foster community—not to drive us further apart.