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

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

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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.

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