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Dirty Politics: Red Said, Blue Said

Dear Red Said, Blue Said,

Have politics become more divisive, or have we just become big babies?

The Red Perspective: Kathryn Biber Chen

A little of both, I think. In many ways, the conduct of politicians is a lot more civilized than it used to be. In 1789, two enraged congressional representatives fought one another on the House floor using a cane and fire tong. In 1838, a heated duel between two freshmen Members ended in death. And in 1856, Representative Preston Brooks famously strolled into the Senate chamber and beat Senator Charles Sumner with his cane until the man was rendered unconscious and was unable to work for three years. Politics ain’t beanbag, indeed.   

While C-SPAN may have reduced the number of bloody brawls on the House floor, voters seem more divided. I’ve long agreed with law professor Cass Sunstein, who argues that our sense of community is being torn apart by a phenomenon known as the “Daily Me.” The theory goes something like this: in the past, citizens received political and other news from generalized, central sources, such as the evening NBC broadcast or local newspapers. These media created a sense of shared community—a sort of “Daily We.” Because citizens had limited means of filtering their news, they necessarily absorbed a broad array of issues and opinions essential to a healthy democracy.  

Today, however, the Internet and cable provide a unique forum for narrow interests to gather and thrive. Care to receive your news exclusively from a Web site or network that caters to your political views, reinforcing the things you already believe about the world? Of course you do. For the first time since the old partisan press, people can receive news solely from personalized sources that serve to reinforce and stoke their preexisting viewpoints. They can easily filter news that bores or aggravates them—in other words, with just a few clicks they can create a “Daily Me.” More convenient for news consumers, but probably bad for democracy. 

Yet, the Internet itself holds the key to solving this problem. Individual citizens now have powers of amplification that previously belonged exclusively to traditional media, and citizens can meet and discuss issues across geographic boundaries. These are all good things. As modern communication technology evolves, however, we must all be on guard to avoid the social fragmentation caused by self-created echo chambers. Take a moment today to browse a political Web site contrary to your own views, or watch a show that typically enrages you … you may actually learn something!

The Blue Perspective: Erin Egan

My two-year-olds remind me daily that calling one another “poopy-head” or “doo-doo-face” does not really address the issue at hand, like who threw sand at whom or who gets to go down the slide first. And although such name-calling is counter-productive, the art of insult actually holds a prominent place in our nation’s history. Indeed, it may be coded in our revolutionary DNA.
Our founding fathers were known to characterize each other as incendiary, distrustful, obstinate, excessively vain, cold, and mean. They employed slurs like madman, coward, landlord, lawyer, and, my personal favorite, “you strutting popinjay.” Ouch! The trend continued into modern times with Truman calling Republicans “a bunch of snolly-gusters”; McKinley’s opponent saying he had “the backbone of a chocolate éclair”; Assembly Speaker Doris Allen calling her fellow Republicans “power-mongering men with short penises”; and Governor Schwarzenegger’s describing Democrats as “girlie men.”
These days, scandalous political episodes—and even the daily task of governance—have provided much fodder for name-calling. Has politics gotten more divisive? Nah. Has the political conversation gone down the toilet bowl? Absolutely.
Impassioned debate, including some choice invectives, led to the formation of our country, the end of slavery, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the withdrawal from Vietnam. These days, the debate centers around foot-tapping Senators, prostitute-loving Governors, and Presidential candidates who may or may not be avoiding sniper fire, wearing a flag pin, or approaching senility.
Who is to blame for this distracted discourse? Maybe we are.
The folks I talk to actually seem united on the big questions—regardless of affiliation. For example, most agree that they are worried about rising gas prices, the stalled economy, climate change, foreclosure, and questionable progress in Iraq and Afghanistan. But most Americans also appear to agree that it is more interesting to debate whether Obama gave Clinton the finger in North Carolina than parse through platforms. We get served round-the-clock U.S. Weekly-style coverage of the gaffe du jour, and, if you believe that the media are giving us what we want, I guess we eat this stuff up. 

How to return to the kind of impassioned debate that leads to solutions we all crave? Let’s reward the candidate who focuses on issues and faces the tough questions, not the candidate who out-Swift-Boats the others.
Name-calling might be part of our heritage, but maybe it’s time to step out of the sandbox.

During this election season, DivineCaroline is presenting a twice-monthly column on politics from two points of view: one red, one blue. Each month you can read what Democrat Erin Egan and Republican Kathryn Biber Chen have to say about the issues. To make sure you never miss a Red Said, Blue Said column, just click on the author’s name at the top of the story, then select “Be notified when writer publishes” at the top of the page. We’ll send you an email as soon as a new column is published.


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