There can be no doubt that America is – at this moment – a very divided country in matters of politics and governance. The best evidence is our elections. In the past 20 years, we have elected two presidents who lost the popular vote – President Bush in 2000 and President Trump in 2016. Other races were perilously close. The 2020 election remains controversial. We have not had a landslide presidential election since President Reagan carried 49 states and 60 percent of the popular vote.
The more recent elections have been more highly contested and, ergo, more contentious. The very closeness of our elections has created heightened anxiety and anger – and that has resulted in more extreme actions and language as the two major political parties vie for power.
As one side heats up the rhetoric and the competitive actions, the other party responds in kind – and the quality of political discourse spirals out of control. It gets acrid … toxic … extreme. Like all such trends, this did not start suddenly. Perhaps we saw the beginnings during the Clinton administration when moral standards – or at least the imagery of the President – got corrupted in scandal. At the time President Clinton complained about the “politics of personal destruction.”
Over time mendacious political narratives and conspiracy theories began to take the place of facts. President Obama was not born in the United States or that he was a secret Muslim. One could fairly say that Obama shifted American policy toward the Arabs – especially the Palestinians – but he was not personally a Muslim and he was born in Hawaii. Many Americans still believe both of those narratives.
Political civility – and reality – devolved even further when Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. Almost instantly arose an unprecedented “resistance movement” – the purpose of which was to destroy the Trump presidency with false narratives. The most obvious was the ongoing accusations by Democrats and the media that the Trump campaign had conspired with the Russians. He was accused of being an asset of Moscow. He was totally exonerated after a two-year, $30 million investigation. Still, many Americans still believe and advance the false narrative.
The nation went through two unwarranted and unnecessary impeachments driven solely by partisan political rancor. The real events leading to the impeachments were distorted and exaggerated into more false narratives.
In this highly divided nation – with the frustration and anger it produces –we now see the most extreme and sensationalistic language being used against opponents – with a corrupt media playing on one side of the divide.
General Mark Milley has been called a traitor for his phone calls to his China counterpart. There are calls for him to be prosecuted for treason. This is a hyperbole of the worst kind. In other commentaries, I have said that Milley should resign or be fired for his poor judgment on a number of occasions. He certainly went around the chain-of-commend. But I do not think he is a traitor.
We have seen an organic riot being elevated to an ongoing insurrection against the United States government. People are being accused of treason and sedition. Some have alleged that the January 6th riot was comparable to the 9/11 attack that took 2,977 innocent lives in three locations. That is more nonsense – preposterous nonsense.
The Republican Party is often called a cult – a “cult of personality” – mindlessly submissive to Trump. Some have even compared this mythical cult to the tragedy of Jonestown, where hundreds died in supplication to Jim Jones. It is a dishonest and ridiculous comparison. And it is based on a political lie that the Republican Party has evolved into a cult. It has not.
CNN’s Don Lemon recently called for civility – even as he regularly feeds the toxicity with outrageous accusations. And perhaps that is the problem. The politicians and the news media that once operated above the gutter now wallow in the filth.
To say that Trump has not been helpful in stemming the tide of toxic discourse is an understatement. His pugnacious personality – and his sophomoric attacks on others – is one of his least admirable traits. He sets the level of debate by elevating that which is best left at the street level.
There are those on both sides who relish the venomous verbiage. They find something satisfying in lowering the political discourse to childish insults, outrageous accusations, and offensive language. I have come to think of it as a political Tourette’s Syndrome in which the afflicted simply cannot control what comes out of their mouths.
The problem with the hyperbole … the exaggerations … the false narratives … and the baseless conspiracy theories is that they do no good. They simply keep the ugly debate going back and forth like a ping pong ball. Insults never change minds – or enlighten.
It has been said that reasonable people looking at the same facts will arrive at similar judgments. I believe that. But that process cannot take place with people engaged in false accusations and mendacious narratives riding on a wave of pejorative prose.
I see things from a conservative viewpoint. But I do have many very liberal friends. We often engage in discussion and debate. But what we seem to have in common is respect each other’s viewpoints and actually concede to well-grounded arguments based on facts and logic – the two elements of objectivity. We never insult each other.
Since the media plays such a key role in toxifying the political atmosphere, the people of the Fourth Estate would do a great service by leading the way back to civility.
I do believe that the American people are growing very weary of this barroom brawl we call political discourse. I believe that the future will belong to those whose fundamental approach is honesty and civility. At least, I hope so.
So, there ‘tis.