Since the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and bystanders in Tucson, politicians, citizens, and the media have immediately and emphatically brought attention to the proliferation of extreme rhetoric in our country’s political discourse. People from all sides of the political spectrum decry the increase in polarization that has taken shape over the last twenty years. I even spoke to a former U.S. Senator recently who told me he would have no interest serving in today’s political environment.
While certainly not the only cause, it is difficult to deny the impact the Internet, Web, and social media has had on the increase of extreme rhetoric in politics. In a recent post, “The Power of Online Political News”, we quoted Eric Schmidt, CEO, Google who said the Web will allow people to “miscommunicate even louder” and is “as likely to make them more extremist as it is to make them more insightful.”  John McWhorter wrote for NPR that “the actual cause of this new national temper is technology and its intersection with how language is used.” He adds “it is no accident that the shrillness of political conversation has increased just as broadband and YouTube have become staples of American life.” This website has even gone out of its way to extol the ability of online communications to “incite supporter fervor.”
It would be hard to find someone who wishes for a détente between Republicans and Democrats more than myself. I fondly remember the political climate of the 1980’s, when my father served as a Senate staffer. While the two political parties disagreed on many issues, there was always an element of respect, with President Ronald Reagan writing in his memories that he and House Speaker Tip O’Neill were friends after 6:00 p.m.
But as we have noted on this website, in today’s saturated media climate, it is typically the extremes that receive the most attention. Even yesterday, the day when mourners gathered in Tucson to honor victims of the shooting, Sarah Palin received a deluge of media attention for her online video in which she used the phrase ‘blood libel.’ And considering the need for Members of Congress to utilize social media in order to expound their messaging, extreme political discourse is going to persist in our society.
Political polarization is nothing new in America. Study the Presidential elections of 1800 and 1828 if you want to see political mudslinging at its apex. But in today’s 24/7, instant news environment, every word is magnified and dissected. This places an extra onus on politicians to ensure their rhetoric inspires as opposed to vilifies. There is nothing wrong with political competition, and social media is a wonderful medium for that, but it is essential to maintain civility in the process.