Tag Archives: Polarization

American Civil Discourse in Serious Trouble

U.S. Capitol Police keep watch on Capitol Hill following a shooting in nearby Alexandria, in Washington, U.S., June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

TOM REGAN: SUMMONING ORENDA
June 17, 2017

The bi-partisan outpouring of unity that followed this week’s shooting at the GOP baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, was a welcome respite in the never-ending deluge of hate-filled rhetoric that overwhelms political discourse daily in the United States.

But it was only a moment. And before the moment itself was over, several voices had already resumed stone-throwing at the opposition. Although Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill appeared genuinely shaken by the shooting at the ballpark that left Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise in critical condition, which led to several very public statements about unity, the usual suspects outside the Beltway were soon filling the airwaves with bile.

First came Newt Gingrich, who blamed the left for a rise in violence in America. Well, the left is partially to blame for sure, but it wasn’t a leftist who stabbed two men to death on the train in Portland Oregon, or who shot nine African-Americans to death in a church in Charlotte. It’s not leftists who have been holding racist, bigoted rallies across the country against Muslims.

The most enlightening comment about Gingrich came from a Democratic member of Congress, who noted that the change in the political discourse in the United States can be traced back to Newt Gingrich’s election as Speaker of the House of Representatives (it’s also right around this time that Fox News came into being). And it is certainly true that Gingrich played a key role in the development of the 20th century version of the demonization of your opponent as political strategy.

And when talking about voices that increase, rather than reduce, the tension in the country, where would we be without mentioning Alex Jones. Jones, an unrepentant bigot and liar, reminds me of a man who runs into a burning building with a can of gasoline. Despite the fact that he’s had to apologize for numerous lies lately (his made-up stories about Hillary Clinton and members of her staff running a child slavery ring out of a pizza shop in Washington DC, or false allegations he made against the yogurt maker Chobani), he’s become something of a celebrity bête noire. He earned praise from Pres. Donald Trump (who praises anyone he thinks likes him) and he is the subject of a very controversial interview with Megyn Kelly on NBC, which has outraged critics on the left and the right primarily because of his vile fabrication that the shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school never happened.

The day after the Alexandria shooting, Jones was making thinly veiled threats against CNN host Wolf Blitzer, who he said had to worry about being shot in the head. He then basically threatened every liberal in the country, hinting they would be wiped out in the coming “Civil War 2.”

Sad to say, this kind of hate-filled rhetoric can also be found among Democrats. While most Democrats, like most Republicans, were horrified by this week’s shootings, more than a few were not. It wasn’t hard to find tweets or comments on news stories from “progressive Democrats” who made comments like “One down, 217 more to go,” or “Too bad he didn’t get Trump.”

While progressives may not have as many public voices pushing a hate-filled agenda as the far right, they are there. One only needs to look at the shooter himself, a man who had volunteered on Bernie Sanders’ campaign in Illinois, to understand that there are Democrats who don’t understand, or who don’t want to understand, the difference between heated political rhetoric and political violence.

Unfortunately, it’s not going to get much better. My son, a college student in Wisconsin, has been warning me for the past two years to expect more political violence. These warnings increased during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and his use of violent and hate-filled language during 2016. Things have not improved since Trump’s election.

I didn’t want to believe my son. But he has a much better grip on what is happening just below that layer of information most of us older Americans rely on, from cable news and newspapers. I am now inclined to agree with him. One only needs to look at recent clashes between far-left Antifa (anti-fascist) forces and far-right pro-KKK, or white supremacist groups like National Vanguard, to see where this may be headed. While most clashes between these opposing forces have been relatively low-level so far, one gets the sense that they are ready to explode at any second.

(There was an interesting moment at a recent far-right gathering in Houston. Several racist and anti-government groups had gathered in a park because of a rumor that Antifa forces were going to demonstrate and call for the removal of a statue of Sam Houston. The rumor turned out to be a hoax, but a fight did break out – between far-right groups like the Oath Keepers and the national Vanguard. Apparently the Vanguard folks and their ilk don’t think the Oath Keepers, an anti-government group composed of older former law enforcement officers, are racist enough.)

Compounding all of this is the fact that there are 300 million guns in the United States, and after last week’s shooting in Alexandria, many Republican lawmakers and groups like the NRA, want there to be more.

Perhaps the U.S. will reach a point where the tension will produce a reverse reaction and some form of sanity will be restored to political discourse in America. Then again, one day an alien spaceship piloted by unicorns may land on earth. I’m not willing to bet on which will happen first.

 

Copyright Tom Regan 2017

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

Links: 

 

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Tom Regan Tom Regan is a journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. He worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92, and is a member of the advisory board of the Nieman Foundation for journalism at Harvard.

Return to Tom Regan’s page 

 

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded only by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and do not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we need a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Visit our Subscribe page for details and payment options, or donate below. With enough supporters each paying a small amount, we will continue, and increase our original works like this.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

 

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Trying to listen in Trump’s America 

Signs like this one dot the American Mid-West. Photo by franleleon, Creative Commons

TOM REGAN: SUMMONING ORENDA
May 13, 2017

In the heart of America, there are long, flat stretches of emptiness in the spring. Fields, only recently plowed and sown with the fall’s harvest, still look barren and soggy. No majestic fields of wheat or corn greet the eye.

I’m driving to Wisconsin to pick up my son from school, accompanied by my daughter. She goes to school in Canada, and so has been out for a couple of weeks. I asked her what she thinks of the landscape. She gazes out the car window, turns to me and says “The only thing I can compare it to is the ocean. So empty and flat.”

This is a trip to Trump country. West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin. All states that voted for Donald Trump. In fact, one might say they are the states that elected Donald Trump, particularly the latter three.

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The signs along the road tell me that this is a different country than the one I left back east. “Jesus is Real” proclaims one large sign. A few miles on another one reads, “Praise be to the Lord, “ and includes a notation of a Psalm from the Bible.

I pull into a gas station and mini-mart somewhere in Ohio. There is a rack of T-shirts supporting the Second Amendment. “Pro-Life, Pro-Gun, Pro-God,” reads one shirt. A small blonde woman in in a torn jean jacket is looking at a T-shirt that reads “I’m a God-fearin’, Bible Believin’, Gun Packin’, American Lovin’ Conservative.”

It’s not all religion and guns, mind you. On the return trip, as we cross from Pennsylvania into West Virginia, the first sign you see is for Jill’s Gentlemen’s Club. “Class acts” the sign assures me.

Maybe it’s just the time of the year, maybe it’s just because things haven’t started to grow yet, maybe it’s just because I’m only driving I-70 and not actually going into any town, but there’s a sense of decay along the highways in this part of the country. While modern, brightly-lit trucks stops cater to the endless ribbon of semis that drive across this country, more often than not the gas stations I pull into need a new paint job, and the pumps don’t always work properly.

The sense of disappointment, of being left behind, hangs in the air like fog. It’s those feelings that helped elect Donald Trump.

I’ve lived in the East my entire life, either in Canada or the United States. Middle America is not my world, and I do not feel at home here. I feel like I have driven into an entirely different country. I’m not sure how to navigate that. People are friendly, but wary. The day I wore my T-shirt with an evolution joke on the front people eyed me a bit suspiciously.

In a motel where we stay, in the free breakfast bar, the television is tuned to a news channel talking about the firing of FBI director James Comey, and the backlash that this has produced among Democrats, Independents, and some Republicans. I asked the person at the next table what they think of the whole thing.

“Well, it was a bit clumsy, but Trump did the right thing. Getting rid of Comey was part of cleaning up the swamp. It’s what the Democrats wanted, so I don’t see why they’re so upset,” he tells me. When he asks me what I think, rather than get into an argument, I tell him I want to wait and see what happens over the next few days.

The most interesting conversation, however, came the next day at the next motel. As we were checking out, a young fella came over to me and started to talk. A truck driver from Alabama, he and his wife were in town to take a safety course at the new company for which he would be driving. The conversation is pleasant and enlightening.

“No, I own my own rig,” he says when I ask. “It’s only way to do it. That way nobody can tell me what to do and what to haul unless I want to. As it is, everybody hates you. The dispatchers, the shipping clerks, the guys who work at the total booths. Everybody just wants to give you a hard time. I’m just trying to make a living.”

He tells me that there is a need for almost 300,000 truck drivers in America. I think back to the highway and that line of semis that seems to stretch from horizon to horizon. And they need more? He says it’s because most truck drivers only last about a year. And then they get fed up with being told what to, and the long hours, and the bad pay, and quit. And move on to the next company.

And as we’re talking it strikes me that he just wants someone to listen to his story. Maybe that’s the key to understanding Trump country. People just want to tell their story, and have someone listen to them. And take them seriously. They want to be valued for what they do, and what they believe.

Then my moment of understanding is shattered by my daughter. I tell her that I think that people around here just want someone to listen to them. “Yes, but they’re not listening either,” she says. “It’s not a one-way conversation.”

I realize that she’s right, and that makes me sad. We increasingly live in two worlds in America. Two different cultures, with different priorities, different beliefs, different ideas of what it means to be American. Once upon a time the idea of being American is what held everybody together. Not anymore. And I believe that gap is growing, and getting harder and harder to cross with every passing day.

We’re back on the highway again, headed towards Wisconsin. We pass a series of Burma Shave-like signs: “I have a gun.” “It’s pretty and pink.” “It makes an attacker.” “Stop and think.”

And again I think that we’re all just talking, and the only opinion that matters is our own.

 

Copyright Tom Regan 2017

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

 

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Tom Regan Tom Regan is a journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. He worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92, and is a member of the advisory board of the Nieman Foundation for journalism at Harvard.

Return to Tom Regan’s page 

 

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded only by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and do not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we need a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Visit our Subscribe page for details and payment options, or donate below. With enough supporters each paying a small amount, we will continue, and increase our original works like this.

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Oceans Apart, United in Hate Crime Worry

Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), reacts at a Leave.eu party after polling stations closed in the Referendum on the European Union in London, Britain, June 24, 2016.  REUTERS/Toby Melville

Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), reacts at a Leave.eu party after polling stations closed in the Referendum on the European Union in London, Britain, June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville

by Patrick G. Lee, ProPublica
January, 2017

Anti-Trump demonstrators protest in front of the White House following Republican Donald Trump's election victory, in Washington, U.S. November 10, 2016.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Anti-Trump demonstrators protest in front of the White House following Republican Donald Trump’s election victory, in Washington, U.S. November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

A divisive vote, with jobs and immigrants the most combustible issues. An outcome that surprised the experts. A nation left on edge, with many anxious about intolerance and the violence that can stem from it.

No, not just America today, but also the United Kingdom seven months ago. Last June, voters there opted out of the European Union, ushering in a new prime minister who has since backed controversial proposals, including one that would require pregnant women to show papers that prove their “right” to use the national health system, before being allowed to give birth in a hospital.

So, were the worst fears of racial, ethnic or other hate violence realized? A mix of government agencies, academics and other organizations have been laboring to offer answers.

In the week after the British went to the polls — widely known as the Brexit vote — there were more than 2,400 accounts of hate crimes reported through Twitter, according to a report from the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

In July, the first full month after the Brexit vote, police in England and Wales recorded more than 5,000 racially or religiously motivated hate crimes, a 41 percent jump from a year earlier, according to a report from the U.K. Home Office. Those numbers declined in August, but were still higher than reported numbers from before the referendum, the report said.

Another analysis tabulated 636 online reports of hate-crime incidents in the month after the vote. About a third of the accounts involved targeting ethnic minorities, particularly South Asians. Among attacks targeting Europeans, Polish people were the most frequent victims. The report, which is based on combined data from three separate social media campaigns, found that more than three-quarters of the incidents consisted of verbal abuse and another 14 percent entailed physical violence or threats of it. The aggressors referred to the referendum in more than half of the incidents, which tended to occur in urban areas, according to the report.

Those doing the research recognize the data is far from perfect: Verifying reports of bias incidents can be difficult; capturing every crime is near impossible. But one aspect of the information has been surprising. The incidents often did not involve the likeliest of suspects: the fringe, ultra-nationalist and Neo-Nazi groups long familiar to many in Britain.

“What we’ve found in Britain is that the vast majority of hate crimes here are not carried out by members of extremist organizations, but carried out by quote-unquote ordinary people,” said Nick Lowles, the director of Hope Not Hate, a research and anti-racism organization that tracks court records and media reports on the prosecution of hate-crime offenders.

A December report from the Institute of Race Relations in London analyzed 134 racist incidents covered by the media in the first month after the Brexit vote, among which the most frequent victims were Muslims and Southern or Eastern Europeans. In only 11 instances were those involved affiliated with far-right groups.

Lowles said that element in the data suggests more significant issues for Britain around the question of racial, religious and political tolerance, beyond the challenges of addressing extremist minorities.

“It’s societal, it’s about racism in society, it’s about economic deprivation, it’s about supremacy,” Lowles said. “The answers are much more difficult.”

An earlier study — a two-year effort based in Leicester, England — found that about a third of hate crimes involved perpetrators who knew their victims, a conclusion based on the experiences of more than 1,400 people who had suffered hate crimes.

“The problem with hate-crime terminology is that it allows us as a society to kind of let ourselves off the hook and say, ‘You know, hate-crime offenders are clearly bigots, and thank God I’m not a bigot,'” said Neil Chakraborti, one of the 2014 study’s authors and a professor of criminology at the University of Leicester. “The majority of hate-crime offenders come from everyday communities, they come from environments and neighborhoods and professional occupations which are typical of us.”

The emerging scholarship in Britain may be of use to law enforcement, academics and advocacy organizations in the U.S. In November, the FBI announced it had seen a rise in hate crimes in 2015 over the previous year. The police in New York City saw a similar pattern during 2016 as the country experienced a divisive vote with jobs and immigration among the lightning rod issues. And civil-rights groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have noted both an uptick in incidents and a direct relation to the 2016 presidential election.

ProPublica in 2017 is launching a project aimed at better recording and verifying reports of hate crimes. The effort will involve a number of news organizations and technology companies.

In Britain, politicians have condemned the violence and intimidation in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Then-Prime Minister David Cameron declared that “we will not stand for hate crime or these kinds of attacks. They must be stamped out.” About a month later, the U.K. government published a new hate crimes response strategy that touted tolerance as “a cornerstone of British values” and promised “to ensure that perpetrators are punished.” In October, newly installed Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement that hate crimes have “absolutely no place in British society” and that government and police agencies had already taken steps to improve their response.

Critics of the government have attempted to highlight what they argue is a disconnect between its worries about violence and its sometimes harsh measures to tackle the volatile issue of immigration.

For instance, following the Brexit vote and widespread denunciations of hate crimes, the U.K. government backed a pilot proposal that would require pregnant women to produce identification before being allowed to give birth at one London hospital. May has also supported a new “targeted visa system” to help limit the number of immigrants that enter the country.

May’s efforts follow earlier action taken during Cameron’s administration. In 2013, when May was Home Secretary, the government launched “Operation Vaken,” a public awareness initiative meant to encourage immigrants without legal status to leave the U.K. voluntarily. The message was delivered in part through mobile billboard vans that drove around six London boroughs, telling people that they should “go home or face arrest.” And just last May, the Immigration Act of 2016 received final approval, making it a criminal offense for undocumented individuals to work and imposing harsher punishments on employers who hire such workers.

In February 2016, Hope Not Hate released a report on public attitudes toward immigration, race, religion and identity in the U.K., which found that those who were the most opposed to multiculturalism and immigration were also the most pessimistic about their own economic futures and that of the country. A follow-up survey conducted just after the referendum found that these same segments of the population — which had largely voted to leave the European Union — had flip-flopped and were now “remarkably positive about the future” given their revived hopes for limited immigration and economic security post-Brexit.

If these citizens’ newly raised expectations are not met, many will feel angry and betrayed by the political establishment yet again, according to Lowles of Hope Not Hate.

“Many people look to the immediate spike after Brexit, just like the immediate spike after Trump’s election, in hate crimes, and that’s obviously shocking enough,” Lowles said. “But our concerns are that the big problems are still to come.”

This story was produced by ProPublica, and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Can America’s polarization be traced to 1832?

By Jennifer Mercieca
July 23, 2016

You’ve probably heard the popular aphorism “to the victor belongs the spoils of the enemy.”

But you might not know who first said it.

In 1832, the United States Senate debated President Andrew Jackson’s unpopular – and decidedly partisan – recess appointment of Martin Van Buren as minister to Great Britain. New York Senator William L. Marcy, a staunch ally of the president, defended the move with those words.

Essentially, Marcy was justifying Van Buren’s appointment on the grounds that since Jackson had won the presidency, he could do whatever he wanted.

Marcy’s loyalty to Jackson and Van Buren helped Marcy to reap some rewards of his own: He would go on to become governor of New York and was eventually appointed secretary of war and secretary of state by Democratic Presidents James Polk and Franklin Pierce. He was even featured on the US$1,000 bill.

But Marcy’s aphorism also signified the growing partisanship taking place in 19th-century American political life, a divide that continues to frame how we think about politics today.

A recent Pew Research Center report found that the average Republican is more conservative than 93 percent of Democrats and the average Democrat is more liberal than 94 percent of Republicans. Pew has also noted that the country has moved away from the center over the past 20 years: Democrats have shifted to the left by 30 percent and Republicans have shifted to the right by 23 percent, leaving little common ground between the two parties.

This Pew graphic shows how the center has dropped out of American politics over the past 20 years.

Political philosophers like Louis Althusser offer an explanation for this growing divide. According to Althusser, states – including democratic republics – will eventually position citizens as “always already subjects”: fractured, obedient and positioned by ideology to work against their own best interests.

In the United States, this may be what’s going on today. But it wasn’t always this way.

Writing in response to the British Parliament’s controversial 1767 Townshend Acts, founding father John Dickinson helped colonial Americans see themselves as citizens rather than as subjects. American colonists, Dickinson argued, needed to begin acting as government “watchdogs.”

Ought not the people therefore to watch? to observe facts? to search into causes? to investigate designs? And have they not a right of JUDGING from the evidence before them, on no slighter points than their liberty and happiness?

In the most ideal sense of the word, being a citizen meant combating corruption by squirreling out facts, investigating the motives of political figures and judging the actions of government through the lens of one’s own liberty and happiness.

The idea is to be independent, critical thinkers – not loyal and obedient subjects.

But between 1824 and 1828, Americans called for more political participation, only to cede some of this watchdog function, as new political leaders and new political parties ended up simply channeling these demands for political participation into political partisanship. During this period, politicians – including Marcy, Van Buren and Jackson – helped establish the party system we know today: two powerful parties, pitted against one another. (Today, it’s the Democrats and Republicans; back then, it was the Democrats and the Whigs.)

It wasn’t much different from being a subject, and advocates of this system demanded loyalty to the party above all else.

“We hold it a principle,” the Jacksonian newspaper the Albany Argus declared on February 17, 1824, “that every man should sacrifice his own private opinions and feelings to the good of his party and the man who will not do it is unworthy to be supported by a party, for any post of honor or profit.”

With the party system firmly established, it was difficult for any nonpartisan to win elected office. Voters and candidates would pick sides, taking for granted that a victory for the candidates of their party would protect their liberty and happiness.

Critical thinking, meanwhile, fell by the wayside.

Early American newspapers served primarily to facilitate trade and commerce, being largely notices of goods for sale. In the 19th century, newspapers began to function as mouthpieces for political parties. But by the turn of the 20th century, many newspapers switched their tack. Journalism adopted the “norm of objectivity,” using muckraking and investigative reporting to hold those in power accountable.

Unfortunately, today, while the public still wants the media to act as a watchdog, in many ways (but not all) outlets have reverted to promoting partisanship.

The media, after all, is business – and many outlets have become increasingly partisan because they’ve realized that it’s good for the bottom line.

And it’s not just news outlets that understand this, but news aggregators. For example, 66 percent of Facebook users get the news primarily from their Facebook news feed. We know that the Facebook algorithm skews what we see in order to keep us on the site longer.

So what impact does the algorithm have on the news we see in our feed?

Recently, the Wall Street Journal created an interactive graphic (updated hourly) that shows the stark difference between news feeds for users the algorithm has labeled liberal and news feeds for those the algorithm has labeled conservative.

For example, on the day after Melania Trump’s controversial Republican National Convention speech, users whom the algorithm identified as liberal were “fed” an article calling Trump’s response to the plagiarism allegations “pathetic.” Meanwhile, conservatives received an article from Rush Limbaugh with the headline “Liberals Always Attack GOP Wives.”

A screen grab from the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Blue Feed, Red Feed’ interactive graphic shows the type of article you’ll be ‘fed,’ depending on how the algorithm has labeled your political preference.
Wall Street Journal

Last month, Pew came out with another survey: 45 percent of Republicans said that Democratic policies threatened the nation; 41 percent of Democrats said the same about Republican policies. It’s a sharp increase from just two years ago, when 37 percent of Republicans thought that Democratic policies were a threat to the nation and 31 percent of Democrats claimed the same about Republicans.

A “threat to the nation” is a far cry from simple disagreement. After all, who threatens the nation?

Enemies threaten the nation.

Let’s return to Marcy’s aphorism and think about how it positions us in relation to political parties.

To the victor belongs the spoils of the enemy.

What does it do to us, to our politics, when we think of the people who hold different policy views as “enemies”? Enemies are evil, not merely people with good reasons for thinking differently. Enemies cannot be trusted. Enemies are irrational because if they were rational, then they would think like we do. We can’t negotiate with evil, untrustworthy, irrational enemies – and so we don’t.

Being a staunch partisan might get you on the $1,000 bill. But a system of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ is bad for democracy.
Wikimedia Commons

Ultimately, Marcy’s “to the victor belongs the spoils of the enemy” assumes, first and foremost, that we’re partisans, not citizens.

So who profits from voters who act like partisans instead of citizens?

Well, since they’re claiming the spoils of office, political parties benefit. During the Republican National Convention, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie hinted that Donald Trump, if elected, would seek a new law to purge the government of Obama appointees. A partisan would believe that it’s Trump’s right to do so; he won, so he can rid the government of his “enemies.” What would a citizen think of Trump’s plan to rid the government of his enemies?

Meanwhile, the rest of us lose.

Perhaps instead of “to the victor belongs the spoils of the enemy,” we could learn to think of politics as “to those entrusted with great responsibility belongs the obligation to work for the common good.” It isn’t as poetic, but it also isn’t as partisan.

As the political party spectacle of two back-to-back presidential nominating conventions plays out, think about how each party invites us to act. Is it as a loyal, obedient soldier or an independent thinker?

Is it as a partisan subject, or as a citizen?

The ConversationCreative Commons

Jennifer Mercieca, Associate Professor of Communication and Director of the Aggie Agora, Texas A&M University  This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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How to fix the Toxic State of Public Discourse — book excerpt

Like Ships In the Night: An excerpt from  I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: the Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up,  New Society Publishers, May 2016

By James Hoggan, with Daniel Yankelovich 
June 2016

When I first began thinking about writing I’m Right and You’re an Idiot, I sat down with Steve Rosell and Daniel Yankelovich, two eminent pioneers in an evolving field that uses dialogue to deal with highly polarized public conflict. I wanted to learn more about the power of dialogue, how to mend broken conversations and achieve clear collaborative communication so we can triangulate issues in innovative ways and find creative solutions. Yankelovich explained that polarization is dangerous because it interrupts lines of communication and leads to gridlock. It stops us from tackling urgent problems because without consensus we cannot take effective action. Rather than highlighting our differences, he said we should work toward finding common ground, and move into a place where we can reserve judgment until we have considered other ways to approach controversial issues.

Yankelovich once wrote: “Democracy requires space for compromise, and compromise is best won through acknowledging the legitimate concerns of the other. We need to bridge opposing positions, not accentuate differences.” He added that unyielding one-sidedness creates a mood of corrosive bitterness. Worst of all, it is a formula for losing the battle, whether it’s a war on terror or combating global warming. Taking a polarized attitude toward critical issues will inevitably yield answers that are dogmatic and keep us from arriving at the truth.

“It’s sad to say, but our culture favors debate, advocacy and conflict over dialogue and deliberation,” Yankelovich said. These adversarial forms of discourse have their uses when attacking special interests in a courtroom or on television when we want our talking heads to be entertaining, but it’s the wrong way to cope with the gridlock threatening to paralyze our society. He said today’s typical model of mass communication — “where people are not listening, are mistrustful, polarized, are not sharing the same basic understandings or mental frameworks”— distorts any possible discussion. We desperately need to find common ground.

Yankelovich believes the quality of public discourse today is “very poor” partly because people are generally inattentive to public affairs; the media plays by its own rules; and our public discourse is undermined by a lack of understanding about the rules of communication. In particular, the scientific community is largely innocent of the rules of public discourse. So we have gifted experts offering abstract, technical, difficult, highly qualified statements, and a media that presents what they say in the form of controversy. The scientific community assumes the same rules of communication are always applicable and rational, that people are attentive, open-minded, persuaded by facts and believe that those who are presenting information are people of goodwill, and not deliberately trying to manipulate them. But none of those things are true.

Communicating under conditions of mistrust requires a different approach, said Yankelovich, who spent the first 30 years of his career in market research. The first step is to acknowledge the skepticism or concern people feel, and then encourage them to reason why in this particular instance it isn’t applicable. The approach should be: The burden of proof is on us; performance should exceed expectations; promises should be few and faithfully kept; core values must be made explicit and framed in ethical terms; anything but plain talk is suspect; all bearing in mind that noble goals with flawed execution will be seen as hypocrisy, not idealism.

When dealing with conditions of inattention the objective is obvious: Get people to listen. If they are mistrustful at the start, they won’t listen even to fair and balanced points of view by distinguished and credible scientists. So a key place to begin is for policy makers and scientists to recognize that communication is not going on when they think it is. “We have an almost extreme situation where the very intelligent elites are sort of mumbling, and bumbling, and proceeding as if they were communicating — when they’re not.” Yankelovich noted the advertising profession has developed ways to communicate under conditions of mistrust and inattention, and others should too.

When we understand these elements — of polarization, inattention and mistrust — it’s clear why the truth about global warming has become so distorted and this is also where authentic conversation comes in. Yankelovich believes dialogue is not an arcane and esoteric intellectual exercise. It is a practical, everyday tool that is accessible to all, and when we use dialogue rather than debate we gain completely different insights into the ways people see the world. Those who say they are “dialogued out” on topics such as terrorism or pipelines are actually tired of the lack of real dialogue, he stressed, because most dialogue is just disguised monologue.

During our interviews, Yankelovich and Rosell explained the clear differences between dialogue and debate: In debate we assume we have the right answer, whereas dialogue assumes we all have pieces of the answer and can craft a solution together. Debate is combative and about winning, while dialogue is collaborative and focuses on exploring common good. Debaters defend their assumptions and criticize the views of others, whereas in dialogue we reveal assumptions and reexamine all positions, including our own.

I especially appreciated the comment that debate is about seeing weaknesses in other people’s positions, while dialogue is about searching for strength and value in our opponents’ concerns. This means approaching environmental issues with an attitude that we could be wrong and others could be right.

Yankelovich explained that the special form of communication called dialogue is only needed when people don’t share the same framework, when ordinary conversation fails and people are passing each other “like ships in the night.” Authentic dialogue takes some effort to achieve and would not be worth the trouble if we could accomplish it with something simpler. In other words, when everybody is singing off the same sheet, shares the same values, goals and framework, we communicate just fine. But when we have highly educated scientists communicating with poorly educated citizens, as well as policy makers, people from the oil industry and stakeholders, it’s obvious that everybody brings a different frame to the issue.

Climate change is a perfect storm when it comes to communication, because it involves a broad array of stakeholders, people with differing values, frameworks and levels of education — all being whipped up by winds of passion and emotion. Rosell added that a growing gap between elites and the general public breeds mistrust between those different universes of discourse. “Government folks talk in jargon, and scientists talk about data. The public talks a different language, and you have to earn their trust. You can’t assume trust anymore.”

In our lawyer-ridden society the dominant mode of communication is advocacy, Yankelovich observed. Advocates are trying to sell something, whereas dialogue needs people who will listen, pay attention and suspend judgment so there is enough shared framework that even if people disagree, they can find some common ground.

When I asked Yankelovich how he became absorbed in the world of dialogue, he described an interesting journey. After having trained in philosophy and psychology, he moved into market research and public opinion polling, but was disappointed in the level of public discourse and the fact people rarely gave thoughtful, considered responses. He noticed this kind of “raw” opinion has certain structural characteristics. For one thing, it is full of contradictions. Ask people the same question at different times and you get different answers. Change the wording slightly and answers change again. People’s views are inconsistent and most importantly, people don’t tend to think through the consequences of their views.

Having isolated these characteristics, Yankelovich determined to find out under what conditions people could move from raw opinion to more thoughtful judgment, where their views would be consistent and where they would be aware of the consequences. In the course of trying to answer these questions, he came upon dialogue and that led to his ongoing work on how to improve the quality of public discourse and public trust.

Yankelovich and Rosell have identified a process they call the public learning curve that describes maturing public opinions, where people’s views evolve from poorly informed reactions to more thoughtful conclusions. The three-stage process begins with building awareness and consciousness (where advocates and the media typically do a good job). The second stage involves working through wishful thinking and denial, resistance to change and mistrust, grasping at straws, deliberate obfuscation and lack of urgency (which is where dialogue comes in). The third part of the learning curve is when people come to resolution (which is handled by decision-makers and governance institutions).“Much of our work focuses on improving the ‘working through’ stage, which our society does not handle well and where critical issues like climate change can get stuck for years or decades,” said Rosell.

The dialogue specialists have developed tools and techniques to accelerate this process, but it still takes time and Rosell explained that’s to be expected. Experts in all kinds of fields have taken many years to master a sphere of knowledge and understand an issue. “There is an assumption that somehow the public will do that instantly, but they don’t. They need time to work through the learning curve, and it can take decades in some cases.”

In conclusion Rosell emphasized: “Public discourse matters, public confidence matters and trust matters if you want to achieve anything collectively. But what’s going on now is not competent, not effective, not legitimate and it’s undermining public trust.” Our ability to have an honest conversation is a tremendous national and public resource, but what Rosell sees happening now is a deliberate attempt to fracture society. We’ve all seen it during election campaigns when we hear outlandish attacks, out-of-control PR and distorted information, but he said this conduct has a cost when it enters everyday life. “You keep doing that and doing that, and you basically pollute the commons.”

Protecting the public square and the public good is an objective worthy of support, he said, and by working to create a climate of trust, a community of discourse, we build up capital that we can use to deal with tricky issues in the future. On the other hand, when public conversations are corrupted, when we can’t think things through because of a tangle of polarization, attack rhetoric and failure of experts to communicate, it is difficult if not impossible for people to move from raw to considered opinion. It is hard enough to go through these stages when we are exposed to clear arguments and healthy discourse, he said, adding that people can surprise themselves when they find common ground and manage to talk and disagree in a different way.

Copyright James Hoggan 2016

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Links:

I’m Right and You’re and Idiot web site, including contact form

James Hoggan page on New Society Publishers

James Hoggan HeadshotJames Hoggan is president of the PR firm Hoggan & Associates and chair of the David Suzuki Foundation board. He has over three decades of experience in crisis and issues management for corporations, governments and public institutions such as universities and hospitals. An advocate for ethics and integrity in public relations, he founded the influential website DeSmogBlog to expose misinformation campaigns that pollute public debate around climate change and the environment.

Hoggan has chaired and served on numerous national and international boards and advisory committees including the Shell Global’s External Review Committee, the Dalai Lama Centre for Peace and Education and Al Gore’s Climate Project in Canada.

He is the author of I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up, Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming and Do the Right Thing: PR Tips for a Skeptical Public.

 

 

 

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Divided we fall

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TOM REGAN: SUMMONING ORENDA   
May, 2015 

The popular image that Americans like to have of themselves is of one nation, undivided, standing together with friends and against foes, that there is no problem that the American people cannot overcome, symbolized most vividly in the image of the melting pot – that no matter where you come from, no matter what your race or ethnic background, it will all disappear one day and you will become an American.

Horse hockey.

 I tend to think of myself as an optimist. I try to look for the best in people, in situations, and in life in general. But I’m growing increasingly pessimistic about the future of the United States of America. Increasingly I see America is not one but two countries: one is rich, white, older, male, conservative, hyper-religious, racist, bigoted and misogynist. The other America is populated with people of colour, the poor, the young, individuals who do not fit into the status quo notion of sexual or gender stereotypes, women (especially poor women of colour), and those who I referred to as progressive “white refugees,” who have fled conservative white America and what it stands for. 

The size of the first group above is shrinking and in some cases dramatically so, while the second group is growing both in numbers and in political clout. This terrifies the first group, and they have decided to defend their beliefs (and the privileges that go along with them) at any cost. The result is an increasing gap in almost every category you can measure.

According to a recently released survey, America now has the fourth largest gap between rich and poor in the world. Only Turkey, Chile and Mexico fare worse. When you consider the incredible wealth of the world’s only superpower, this is a staggering statistic. It illustrates how wealth is increasingly being concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals who spend much of their time only trying to make sure that the system is rigged to concentrate even more economic power in their hands. 

You can see this divide in the comments of former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, when he told a small group of wealthy supporters that 47% of people in the country are basically freeloaders totally dependent upon the government for everything.

You increasingly see this gap occurring around issues about race. How many more Fergusons or Baltimores or New Yorks or Clevelands are we going to need before we face the truth that there is an ugly streak of institutionalized racism that run through police departments across this nation? But those in the first group don’t want to face this issue. Their thoughts on the subject can best be summed up in a recent statement by Politico conservative writer Rich Lowry who said that “Not all black lives are worth saving.”

Politically, you see this gap widening almost day by day over issues like gay marriage, immigration, womens’s reproductive health, climate change, contraception, programs that support the poor, health-care, gun legislation, treatment of minorities like Muslims, and the list goes on and on. While there have always been differences on these and many other important issues between these two groups, in the last decade has become a veritable chasm of Grand Canyon proportions. 

And I’m afraid that the very medium on which you are reading this column is part of the reason. The Internet, for all the many positive things it does, has basically allowed Americans to read only those views that basically support the biases or prejudices that they hold. When added to the influence of cable TV news channels that only present liberal or conservative viewpoints, and in the case of a channel like Fox “News,” views that are often distorted lies and manipulated information masquerading as “the truth,” people can go months without ever actually stumbling across an opposing point of view.

Never has there been a time when we have more access to information and so little exposure to facts.

I wish I could offer you some kind of a solution, some kind of a 30,000 foot-view that basically said it’s all okay, it’ll all work out okay. But I really can’t. Both sides are entrenched for the long run, with little hope of a truce on the horizon. I certainly can’t pretend that I see both groups equally – I absolutely find myself in the latter group, constantly bemoaning the actions of the former. But as much as I find some of their actions despicable I would be more than willing to compromise to something that both sides could agree to.

Maybe right now I just can’t see the forest for the trees, but there are so many trees, so many issues that demand our attention, but will probably never be dealt with. 

Because how can you solve a problem when you can’t even agree on what the problem actually is? And that is America’s problem.

 

References:

 

These Countries Have The Widest Gap Between The Rich And The Poor, Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/29/countries-rich-poor-gap_n_7471214.html

 

Copyright Tom Regan 2015 

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

 

Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.

 

 

 

 

 

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