Uncivil Discourse

Have Americans lost their ability to exchange ideas and discuss politics without the equivalent of a high-school cafeteria food fight breaking out? Over the past few weeks, from San Jose to Washington, some of the language and rhetoric that’s been on display has been quite amazing.

Last Wednesday, after the President’s State of the Union Address, Chris Matthews expressed his impression that during the course of Obama’s speech the president “forgot he was black.” A few days earlier, the Mercury News Editorial Board offered: “Before dismissing any prospects of health care this year, consider this: Who would have thought two years ago that a black man would be elected President…?” Why the omnipresent preoccupation with race? Does anyone else really think, write, or speak like this?

The hits keep on coming. Just after the earthquake in Haiti, Rush Limbaugh commented that the situation would provide the Obama Administration with an opportunity to burnish its “creditability with the black community.” In terms of fundraising, Limbaugh argued that, “We’ve already donated to Haiti…it’s called the U.S. income tax.”  Great.

And then there’s Keith Olbermann. During his Jan. 26 broadcast, Olbermann referred to the Wall Street Journal as the, “White Power Weekly News.”  And, on the night of the Massachusetts senate election, just before Scott Brown was announced as the projected winner, Olbermann said the following: “In Scott Brown, we have an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, sexist, ex-nude model, teabagging supporter of violence against politicians with whom he disagrees.”


  1. > Have Americans lost their ability to exchange ideas and discuss politics without the equivalent of a high-school cafeteria food fight breaking out?

    It depends on which Americans you are attempting to exchange ideas and discuss politics with.

    If you are attempting rational discourse with a Narcissist American, the answer is definitely “Yes”.

    In recent years, there has been a growing recognition that America is becoming a more narcissistic society.

    Books like “The Culture of Narcissism” and “The Narcissim Epidemic” describe the phenomenon of increasing narcissist behaviors in Americans.

    The Sixties were known as the “Me Generation” and the triumphant achivement of the Sixties is arguably the election of one of their own, child of the Sixties Barack Obama,  as America’s “Narcissist in Chief”.

    Not only is Obama himself a narcissist, he is the incarnate personna of the cult of narcissism.  Narcissists require continual ego-stroking, and they likewise realize that their fellow narcissists respond to and are hypnotized by the stroking of their egos.

    Narcissists are a cult of co-dependency.

    A non-narcissist who attempts to “exchange ideas and discuss politics” with a narcissist, will likely fail to reach any common ground, unless the common ground encompasses or is centered upon how wonderful the narcissist and his ideas are.

  2. But politics and debate can be fun!

    The urge to dissent and compete seems to be a gut level thing that people like.  We compete in our household (spouses) and in the playground and on the ballfields.  Sometimes these are group things, and sometimes its a solo sport.  In co-opetition game theory, sometimes its better to co-opt an opponent so that you can join forces against others and both get more than if you tore each other apart fighting some zero sum game where only one can win (ie – “There can only be one” as Highlander characters often quoted during that bad sci fi movie.)  In business this works really well when a couple of major players can join forces to freeze out all competitors and share the spoils of a duopoly.  I suppose this is technically illegal, but when was the last time the Justice department actually prosecuted a major American or foreign company for market manipulation?

    Back to politics and uncivil debate.  There are rights as well as responsibilities in a democratic society.  We don’t actually have a democracy, its more a quasi-republic with shades of oligarchy and tints of democracy slapped on like a cheap coat of paint.  But that’s what we got, and its written up in the constitution which actually carries more weight than the Declaration of Independence (which is about as legally binding as a organizations vision statement.) 

    So partisanship made its way into the national conversation and made for great sport in the days when high times were getting an out of town newspaper from a traveller.  We like to be involved in stuff bigger than ourselves and through politics we can be.  With political parties, we can even play on giant (sometimes)winning teams even if all we’re really doing is shooting the breeze with neighbors and talking about those rascals in Washington or the State Capital.  But as the world got smaller with telegraphs, telephones, radios, television, and now computers and all-news networks, everyone can be a player-coach in the great sport of american democracy all the time.  And the heated battles that you usually only see around major and minor elections spill over into year-round activism and us-vs-them arguements where you always have to be in adversary mode to stay in the game.

    In the heady rush to be right or win, manners, civility, even common sense get thrown out the window.  I’ve seen partisans get so passionate that they’ll make excuses for inexcusable lapses by one of their fellow partisans (because you got to back your team.) 

    The whole idea of democracy is that common sense and cooler heads will prevail.  That’s one reason that lower voter turnout is NOT a bad thing.  People that have hot heads and quick passions rush from cause to cause and don’t have the staying power to actually participate in something as mundane and civil as casting a secret ballot in an off-year election.

    If people took politics more seriously than football, and took the time to discuss the stengths and weaknesses over both sides in a debate before making a considered stand, we’d have a stronger political system. 

    Instead we have rule by a minority of life-long voters sharing power with the wealthy class (who have more say regardless of whether they cast that secret ballot based upon campaign contributions and lobbyists).

    The activists, journalist and all the other disenfranchised can vent, but if they don’t vote in off-year elections and participate in civic responsibilities like jury duty, they’re part of the problem and not the solution.  Watershed elections like 2008 where participation creeps a few points above 50% make everyone feel like shareholders in our great society, but come 2010, or even some special election in 2011, we’ll see who’s really paying their dues and doing what it takes to keep us headed toward a less imperfect system as envisioned in the declaration of independence.

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