A glimmer of silver lining might yet emerge from the attempted political assassination in Arizona if its horror can lead us to constructive change in ourselves and our society. If the public and our leaders reflect on the tone and volume of political debate in our country; if our leaders are willing -- and the public demands it -- then change is possible. However, for that to occur, we need to understand why our discussions on important public issues have reached such a toxic level.
Over-the-top political rhetoric and images are nothing new. Thomas Jefferson hired someone to publish terrible lies about John Adams. Martin Van Buren was accused of cross-dressing. James Buchanan's opponents claimed he'd tried to commit suicide. Abraham Lincoln was called incredibly awful names. In more recent history, Lyndon Johnson's 1964 Daisy" TV spot suggested that Barry Goldwater was too wacky to be trusted with nuclear weapons. George H.W. Bush used Willie Horton to add a dash of racism to a scary message about violent crime. In 2000, John McCain was anonymously accused of fathering illegitimate Black children, and in 2004, we saw the complete fabrication of the Swift Boat Veterans campaign against John Kerry.
This stuff has been part of American political history from the beginning, though today we've become much better at it. Profound changes in communication technology and audience habits have given candidates, elected officials and pundits exponentially more channels to reach exponentially more people with exponentially more impact. Fox News, MSNBC, talk radio and a seemingly infinite blogosphere have created massive echo chambers. No-one has to be exposed to information that doesn't reinforce their own beliefs and biases. Leaps in technology allow for more probing opposition research, message dissemination without fingerprints, and "trackers," who record every utterance by a candidate or a relative or supporter and can take something viral in hours.
The suspicion and outright distrust generated and magnified by these campaigns have inevitably metastasized into the public dialog on nearly every issue. Last year, a U.S. Representative called the President of the United States a liar in the middle of a nationally-televised speech and then used his outburst to raise campaign cash. We witnessed a Democratic Member of Congress yelling at a colleague at the top of his lungs in floor debate. Republicans stepped out on a Capitol balcony during debate on healthcare reform to stoke an angry, anti-government crowd. Sarah Palin announced that encouraging doctors to consult with their patients about end of life care was the creation of Government Death Panels.
Old political hands will tell you wistfully that there used to be a difference between politicking and governing. Any more...not so much. The win-at-any-cost mentality and willingness to demonize anyone with a differing view that typify political campaigns have now become accepted as debate on public policy. Some of our top government officials are willing to stand up in public and say things they know are not true, over and over and over again. They're willing to use the most dishonest appeals to fear. Why? Because it's effective.
There's a systemic danger. These tactics lead to harder, more intractable positions on important and urgent issues. We've seen it become more and more unlikely for opposing sides to be willing -- much less able -- to work together; to look for any common ground. What's worse, even if elected representatives were willing to compromise, they're afraid their own political supporters will punish them. How many moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats were defeated in their re-election campaigns because they were suspected of dealing with the other side? How, in such an overheated and deeply divided political environment, can a representative government function properly?
We know strong emotional elements give a political message more impact. Behavioral and communication scholars continue to learn more about how emotion-laden messages are received and processed differently by the brain than messages appealing to reason and intellect. Unfortunately, name-calling can overwhelm substance and rational thought in debates about serious public issues. Unfortunately, fear has become a highly effective political organizing strategy. Unfortunately, anger works.
Some will argue that the wider use of over-the-top political rhetoric in campaigns and public policy discussion simply reflects a more entrenched and ideologically divided society. However, it is just as likely that the wider use of over-the-top rhetoric has actually contributed to a more entrenched and ideologically divided society.
Politics and public policy discussions are marketing campaigns, incredibly focused and intense, but marketing campaigns none the less. They seek to persuade; to sell ideas. Effective marketers use tools that work. And, as long as fear and anger work -- until enough of the public has had enough -- these tools will continue to be used.