The Horror in Alexandria
This week we saw an attempted mass murder of Republican Congressmen and staffers by a 66-year-old Bernie Sanders supporter and anti-Trumper. While further investigation might conclude that this is a one-of-a-kind extraordinary event, nevertheless we are seeing increased violence in politics, including: the shooting of Democratic Representative Gabby Giffords and 18 others in 2011; a long list of violence by both pro-Trumpers and anti-Trumpers at his campaign rallies; a man with a gun ready to shoot liberals in a DC pizza restaurant; a Portland man stabbing Muslim teens on a train in the the name of patriotism and free speech; and Republican Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte body-slamming a reporter in May 2017.
In addition to the horrible physical violence, we have seen high degrees of incendiary language, innuendo and symbolism since the 2016 presidential election began. Just a few examples: Donald Trump repeatedly demonized the press at campaign rallies, causing reporters to truly fear for their safety, and then called the media “the enemy of the people” after taking office; Kathy Griffin was fired by CNN after getting photographed with what appeared to be Donald Trump’s severed head; Eric Trump denied the humanity of Washington Democrats, saying “they’re not even people”; Donald Trump Jr. blamed the staging of Julius Caesar with a Trump-like protagonist for contributing to the Alexandria shooting.
The heightened political emotionalism wasn’t just for celebrities. Average Americans found they were in danger of verbal or social media assault if they even hinted that the other side might have some merit in their arguments. The political heat wasn’t just Democrats versus Republicans. There was also considerable animosity between Sanders and Clinton supporters, and with Republicans, there was animosity between pro-Trumpers and anti-Trumpers.
How did we get to this point and what can we do to fix it?
Our Partisan Divide
The 2016 US Presidential election was characterized by unprecedented emotional partisanship. Any American who lived through it remembers the vicious attacks if you dared to push back even a little on the tribal discussions among a group of pro-Trumpers or anti-Trumpers. It was necessary for families to set “no politics” rules before family events to prevent ugly and heated arguments destroying what should be a time of joy and celebration. With previous elections (Obama/Romney, Obama/McCain, Kerry/Bush43, …), there were certainly huge disagreements, but the level of discord remained within the range of general civility and respect. Perhaps the divide is greater now than any time since the American Civil War.
(Another emotional year was 1968, but the prime driver for the protests were young men who did not want to be drafted into the horror of the Vietnam War. When Nixon ended the draft, the protests went away. 1968 also had George Wallace as a third-party candidate stoking the flames of racism.)
How Did It Happen?
How did we get to the point where someone of different political views is no longer just someone we dismiss as an idiot (from our point of view), but now has become our arch-enemy who threatens everything we hold dear?
There have always been large natural divisions
The USA has always had deep divisions. Even at its founding, there was a North/South divide over slavery. Many Founding Fathers owned slaves, including Washington, Jefferson and Madison. On the other side, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton served as officers in their respective state antislavery societies.
Hamilton (in the emerging Federalist Party, whose business-friendly political vision ultimately became a core of the Republican Party) had a vicious public fight in partisan newspapers with Thomas Jefferson (and the emerging Democratic Party) over the role of government within the economy, with Hamilton advocating a strong and active government (e.g., a tax collection system, a central bank and a standing army) and Jefferson preferring limited government. (Yes, the tables have turned.)
As America grew westward, natural economic differences between North, South and West emerged. The North favored a central bank, protective tariffs and business/government cooperation on infrastructure projects such as canals and railroads. The South opposed all three. The West opposed the central bank, was OK with small tariffs and strongly supported infrastructure projects. Combine these economic issues with the growing emotion over slavery, the pre-Civil War period was extremely emotional and volatile. The divisions were so deep, particularly over slavery, that only a Civil War could resolve the issues.
As we all know, the North won the Civil War. With Lincoln’s assassination, there was insufficient moderating leadership and the Radical Republicans instituted a Reconstruction that was both economically punishing and psychologically scaring. Resentment among Southerners was deep and long-lasting, crossing generations (the South was solidly Democratic until the eras of Nixon and Reagan) and in fact probably still affects people today.
Since World War I, American political discourse has been generally civil. There have always been smaller factions with high levels of passion and commitment, but only in 2016 was the entire electorate strongly polarized at roughly half one way and half the other.
Pew Research published a report that underlines just how divided America is today: The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider.
Why were emotions extra high in 2016 (and continuing today)?
If we take a step back, what are the actual disagreements of today’s political world? Are we emotional because health insurance rates have gone up more than we would have liked under the Affordable Care Act? Did Big Government suddenly grow in an unprecedented manner in the Obama years?
I do not see anything momentously new in the Obama years versus what happened under other presidents. Sure, Conservatives can disagree strongly with Obamacare and gay marriage, but those issues are relatively small compared to the monumental changes under LBJ in the 1960’s such as the Great Society, Medicare and the Voting Rights Act, none of which generated great political emotion in the 1968 election (which was indeed emotionally charged and sometimes violent, but not because of LBJ’s domestic program; instead, people were mostly energized against the draft for the Vietnam War). I just don’t see how today’s policy issues could possibly explain the heightened emotionalism of 2016 versus previous elections.
Instead, I believe that the excessive emotionalism of 2016 was more irrational and emotional than logical. The partisan fervor was the culmination of various social phenomena that have been developing over the past few decades:
- Partisan media. Roger Ailes discovered a financial goldmine by engineering Fox News into the leading voice of Conservative outrage. Rush Limbaugh and others also pioneered the technique of stirring up political emotions to build large and loyal followings, which fortuitously also translated into big advertising revenues, which in turn made these media pioneers into rich and powerful men (and which, in the case of Ailes, allegedly offered the extra benefit of the opportunity for sexual predation). The Liberals used the same stir-up-outrage techniques, but not as effectively. The lasting side-effect is that a significant number of people on both sides of American politics have deep emotional negativity towards the opposite side. The opposing side isn’t just wrong — they are dangerous. It wasn’t just the major media; many smaller media outlets fabricated fantastic lies to gain followers because it helped their ideological and financial goals.
- Globalism. There have been huge but slow-moving changes over the past few decades. Biggest of all is the globalization of the economies of the world. Many people who came of age in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s or 80’s in America thought that all you had to do for a good life was have a job like your parents, such as working in the local automobile factory where you had a union helping you to fight your battles. Many of these people were blindsided by the creeping effects of globalism. First, perhaps their union lost bargaining power and wages flattened. Years later, their factory closed and they were unemployed. The cause often was globalism: either cheaper overseas labor enticed management to move the factory to a different country or global competition proved too much and the company just dropped out of that market. For workers who were counting on lifetime employment, the natural reaction was anger at something. And given partisan media, they were primed to blame the other side of the political aisle.
- Social media. Social media, particularly Facebook, provided a wonderful echo chamber where like-minded people can stir up each other’s emotions by condemning the horrible people who have different points of view.
- Russian meddling. The American intelligence communities concluded that Russia purposely interfered with the 2016 election, including a concerted effort to publish sensational false news stories (aka fake news) against Hillary Clinton that gullible Americans would read and then lead them to vote against Mrs. Clinton. Russia also dominated weeks of the news cycle through a slow drip of revelations from Russian-hacked email systems that were released through WikiLeaks. Russian interference added to the partisan emotionalism discussed above (partisan media and social media).
- Entitlement. Many Americans believe the world should be giving them what they want, versus them taking responsibility for their own choices and doing what it takes to make a living in today’s world. Many of us grew up in comfort and just feel life should continue to give us nice lives. If life is disappointing, we feel frustrated, and frustration turns to anger. But anger at what or whom? Politicians and partisan news organizations have been more than happy to focus the frustration of certain groups (e.g., blue-collar workers or unemployed young adults) into anger directed at the opposition political party. For politicians who channel people’s frustration into partisan anger, they are rewarded with votes and donations. For partisan news channels, they are rewarded with high viewership and greater profits.
- Donald Trump. Love him or hate him, he dominated the news for the entire 2016 election cycle and was instrumental in further dividing the politics of America. His followers were true believers in him as a political savior. For the other side, he was a villain unlike anyone in recent American history. One of his campaign slogans was that we can’t afford to be politically correct, which some people might translate as we should not worry about social norms such as respect and civility. At an Iowa rally, he said, “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise.” This kind of language teaches his followers that it’s OK to be uncivil and perhaps even violent against people who voice conflicting opinions. The polarization of American opinion on Trump continues to this day and might even be growing. At the time of publishing this article, a recent respected poll showed 34% approval and 64% disapproval. Based on recent interviews with Trump supporters, I would guess that the majority of that 34% is still extremely committed to their man, and I would also expect a very large block of Americans thoroughly detest him.
Why This Is Dangerous To Democracy
Many Progressives firmly believe there is a billionaire conspiracy that has masterminded a vast propaganda effort exploiting the naturally conservative views of under-educated white voters to back legislation that further enriches the billionaire puppet-masters. Bernie Sanders tapped into this Progressive sentiment by hammering repeatedly about the economic divide between the very rich and everyone else. These sentiments endanger democracy because people lose enthusiasm to participate and demonize the Conservative Right because they think the system is rigged irreparably against them.
Many on the Right have a similar grand conspiracy in their minds where the Progressives want to force liberal values on them, including taking away their guns, forcing them to abandon their religion and forcing dangerous people, such as illegal immigrants, Muslims and gay married people, into their lives. To many of them, enemy #1 is liberalism. Trump tapped into these fears with promises of the Wall, the Muslim ban, calling himself the law and order candidate and depicting the Washington Establishment as the problem.
Since becoming President, Trump has relentlessly attacked the media, thereby undermining the institution of the Press upon which our democracy depends as a primary information source. He has also attacked the independent Judiciary and has praised authoritarian leaders for their strong leadership. These actions and more have caused many people on both sides of the political spectrum to claim that he is a threat to American democracy. Note that the vast majority of Republicans still strongly support him, so this charge is hardly a universal sentiment.
How To Repair the Damage
Fixing the extreme partisan divide will not be easy, but we must try; otherwise, extreme divisiveness will lead to the breakdown of our democracy, which in turn will lead to authoritarianism and loss of our precious freedoms. Here are things each of us can do to begin the process of restoring civility and respect to political discussion:
- Patience and persistence. It took decades to get where we are today, perhaps centuries if you believe that the echoes of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction can still be heard today. The repair work will take a long time. We all need to make a lifetime commitment to do what we can to make political dialogue less emotional and thereby help prevent our democracy from splitting at the seams.
- Each Democracy Patriot needs to lead by example. If you consistently engage in political dialogue with true civility, respect, kindness and openness, particularly the willingness to listen to others, your behavior will make an impression on others, and the calmness will become contagious. Humans naturally mimic each other, even with subtle things such as social interaction patterns.
- Become more open-minded, and again be an example to others. Ask yourself if you are truly open-minded about politics. One easy test is whether you believe everything the other side believes is wrong. If so, then you are most likely closed-minded. For example, if you identify as a Democrat, you might have legitimate disagreements with many Republican party proposals, but fiscal restraint and national defense should be legitimate concerns for all Americans. In the other direction, a diehard Republican should see public education as a national priority because otherwise we will not have a skilled workforce to compete in the global economy. Look in the mirror clearly and ask yourself, “Have I been truly open-minded, or have I been blinded by political tribalism?”
- Don’t allow yourself to be part of a partisan echo chamber. In 2016, Democrat-leaning people would reinforce each other’s demonizing of Trump and Republicans in face-to-face discussion and on social media, particularly Facebook. Same thing in reverse with Republicans, who stoked each other’s dislike of Hillary Clinton until it turned into mass hatred and somehow the term “emails” became the most important thing in the 2016 presidential election. If you find yourself in a tribal echo chamber that is building emotion rather than fact-based substance, try to redirect the discussion to fact-based discussion (or perhaps a cat video).
- Don’t express violent thought, even in jest. Ted Nugent recognized this when he promised the day after the Alexandria shootings to stop “hateful rhetoric.” In the past, he told Obama to “suck on my machine gun” and called Hillary Clinton a “devilbitch” who “hates everything good about America.” He now realizes that violent language has consequences.
- Look at political discussion as a mutual search for truth. Rather than argue with someone who disagrees with your world view, engage in active listening to determine if the person knows facts you do not know or has core values which differ from yours. By asking the person to elaborate on his positions, you might learn something yourself and/or the other person might realize his/her strongly held political positions do not align with his/her core values. Make fact-based truth more important than how you feel emotionally.
- Be on continual lookout for fake or biased news. Be suspicious of every article you see, no matter how much you would like to believe it is true because the article appears to confirm a suspicion you had about the other political party. Do Web searches to see if other news organizations are publishing the same information and to see if anyone has debunked the article. Ask yourself whether a sensational story that comes your way might have been planted by the Russians or even domestic political organizations. For articles from well-known news outlets such as the New York Times and Fox News, read the article to see the source of the information. If the source is anonymous or partisan, have some healthy skepticism. Even honest journalists can be tricked into publishing falsehoods by clever politicians.
Democracy Guardians, a nonpartisan nonprofit, will try to address some of the contributing factors (e.g., fake news and partisan media) through its Prioritizing Trustworthiness initiative, which will be a global, crowd-sourced trustworthiness Internet service that collects trustworthiness reviews on people and organizations who provide information on government and politics. The Internet service will:
- Collect trustworthiness reviews and rating scores from the public and store them in the cloud with full transparency on every aspect of its operations
- Compute two numeric values for each Internet ID (person or organization): an average trustworthiness rating and a confidence value on that rating
- Generate a small icon that conveys at a glance the trustworthiness of a particular individual or organization
- Work with the media and news aggregators to show the trustworthiness icon next to the byline of news articles so that readers can see at a glance the trustworthiness of the author (person or organization)
- Promote the service so that its use is widespread, and thereby pressure government, politicians, the media and pundits to be more honest in their communications
You can find out more about this initiative by either visiting the Prioritizing Trustworthiness page on this website or reading Chapter 6: True Prioritizing Trustworthiness from my book Holy War for True Democracy.Extreme divisiveness will lead to the breakdown of our democracy, then to authoritarianism and loss of our freedoms Click To Tweet
About the author
Jon Ferraiolo is the author of Holy War for True Democracy and the founder of Democracy Guardians. He has advanced ALS which has resulted in near-paralysis of his arms and hands. As a result, he wrote this article, authored the book and launched the nonprofit using only his eyes.