“Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”
~Thirteenth Century poet, Rumi
Before the current era of “the politics of personal destruction,” Republicans and Democrats competed respectfully in the marketplace of ideas. They regarded one another as friends with differing views, not enemies.
Princeton history professor Julian Zelizer says, “We can date precisely the moment when our toxic political environment was born.” It was, she says, “Speaker Wright’s downfall in 1989.” His downfall came at the hands of a Congressman named Newton Leroy Gingrich, a former professor of history and geography at the University of West Georgia.
Even though he, too, was guilty of writing thousands of dollars of bad checks on the House Bank, including a $9,463 check to the IRS, Gingrich was able to use the newly installed C-SPAN cameras to very publicly indict his Democratic enemies (they were no longer merely competitors). However hypocritically, the Gingrich-inspired House Bank and Post Office scandals ended Jim Wright’s career, and the new era was born.
In 1990, Republican pollster/wordsmith, Frank Luntz, wrote a memo called ‘Language, a Key Mechanism of Control,’ that encouraged Republicans to ‘speak like Newt’.”
The memo instructed them to use highly inflammatory words like “betray, bizarre, decay, destroy, devour, greed, lie, pathetic, radical, selfish, shame, sick, steal, and traitors,” when they talked or wrote about Democrats. With that, the collegial atmosphere in which legislative compromises had historically been struck, was over. No more gabbing across the aisle, no more hunting and fishing trips together, and no more dinner parties at each-others homes.
Most important, while the bickering—both across the aisle, and within the ranks of the Republican Party—we can’t get anything done. Our roads and bridges are disasters waiting to happen. Our water and sewer systems are, in many places, over a century old. We can’t agree on immigration reform, early childhood education, or reasonable ways to rid our electoral process of the towering amounts of cash special interests use to influence outcomes.
All of this comes at the price of civility. A tiny, but noteworthy example: it is a sad statement that so many Republicans, led by the president and his talk radio and cable news sycophants, find it necessary to childishly demean the Democratic Party by referring to it as the “Democrat Party.” This small insult typifies the larger environment in which we live. The term dates back to the 1940’s when Republicans used it as an irritant; a thumb in the eye of the party in power. It fell out of favor until the late 1980’s when Rush Limbaugh, he of the flair for demeaning rhetoric (“feminazis,” anyone?), began to use it, well, liberally.
Gingrich, nobody’s fool, picked up on it and Rush’s popularity, and used it to cozy up to Limbaugh, who had an army of twenty-million weekly radio listeners. So Newt tapped into Rush’s audience, and their language became synchronized. The party apparatus tolerated no deviance from the daily message. To survive in this newly weaponized environment, one could not wander off the reservation. There were no ad-libbed remarks. Message discipline became the order of the day, and together they employed a huge megaphone that amplified the day’s talking points across the entire media universe.
Part of the strategy was to reframe the mainstream media as the “liberal mainstream media.” Trapped within that phrase is the logical leap that right wing media is somehow not mainstream, while nothing could be further from the truth. Fox News, when combined with conservative talk radio, constitutes the largest part of the “mainstream media.” Implicit in their tagging is the misnomer that they are somehow niche-media underdogs, when, in fact, Fox News billed north of two billion dollars last year and defeats both CNN and MSNBC in ratings and revenue. Conservative talk radio makes similar money and may have even greater influence than its television counterparts.
Note that Democrats are not well-suited to the insult game. They call the Republican party by its proper name. They don’t have an insulting, childish, term for Republicans. Moreover, they still don’t regard Republicans as the enemy, but rather as competitors in a partnership whose goal is to create a more perfect union.
It is these childish and mean taunts that fuel hate. If we are ever to heal this nation, we will have to stop regarding our political competitors as enemies. Our nation has historically had peaks and valleys in our political discourse, but the cycle has gotten more and more vicious to the extent that it is now toxic.
A good beginning to civility is using civil language, and to stop regarding our competitors as enemies.
The thunder has drowned out the rain, and has come at a terrible cost to civility and national progress.
Jon Sinton is a serial media entrepreneur, who has consulted for NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, and Fox News. He has owned and operated radio stations, radio networks, and digital media sites. Mr. Sinton, a Coronado resident, is the Immediate Past Chairman of the Georgia chapter of the nonpartisan, nonprofit government watchdog organization, Common Cause.