Political vitriol, invective now at the speed of light

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Vitriol and invective stain American political history, but falsehoods, half-truths and innuendo now spread with the speed of light across partisan airwaves and the Internet -- the din drowning out the country's moderate political center.

Countless Internet blogs have taken on the administration of the first black president, claiming -- falsely -- that Barack Obama isn't an American citizen, is a secret Muslim, is a socialist, wants to establish death panels to decide when elderly Americans would no longer receive medical care and be allowed to die. The list is long.

Most recently, a partisan furor blew up when Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Republican national chairman Michael Steele set the tone, declaring that giving the prize to the U.S. commander in chief showed "how meaningless a once honorable and respected award has become."

Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, was not immune, nor was Bill Clinton. But today the volume of screeching partisanship is cleaving the American electorate, perhaps as deeply as at any time since the Civil War a century and a half ago.

"The environment is much more extreme today because of the level of public involvement, the level of incivility among both the political elite and the public," said Chris Dolan, a political scientist at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.

At Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., Clyde Frazier said, "It is nasty and getting nastier." While he believes American history is littered with dirtier political periods and nastier claims among politicians, Frazier, also a political scientist, sees today's climate partly the result of the "media culture. Vitriol seems to sell. If you are telling people the end of the world is at hand, they watch."

Seeking biased input

While Americans once sought news from media outlets that aimed for objectivity, many are now turning to sources that reinforce their political viewpoints, including the conservative Fox News and the liberal MSNBC on cable television and the exploding blogosphere that ranges across the political spectrum.

The heated partisan atmosphere produced a break with decorum last month when a member of the House of Representatives shouted out "You lie!" as Obama spoke to a joint session of Congress, extolling his efforts to overhaul the U.S. health care system.

Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst drew the South Carolina Republican a rebuke from the House, but, tellingly, supporters quickly began donating heavily to his political war chest.

Not long afterward Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., took the House floor to attack minority Republicans on health care, declaring, "The Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick." A Republican congressman quickly drafted a call for Grayson's reprimand, but the matter was later dropped.

"Political animosity has become professionalized," said Frazier, specifically mentioning talk radio's conservative Rush Limbaugh, who openly calls for the failure of the Obama presidency. Fox News' Glenn Beck says Obama is a racist.

The revival of bitter partisanship has built quickly and steadily since the nation united behind Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. It was quickly discovered that his rationale for going to war in Iraq -- claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction -- was untrue and the temporary unity dissolved.

Public demand

"It's a hard thing to stop and it is escalating" each time Republicans or Democrats cede power in the capital, said Jack Holmes, political science professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich.

Is there away out?

"At a certain point the public well demand an end, say 'we want this to stop,'" Holmes said. "The public has to demand it and will start judging political leaders accordingly."

A signal moment arose when Obama came under attack from opponents when he planned an Internet address at the start of the school year to encourage students to work hard and stay in school. He was accused, before the very moderate and apolitical address, of wanting to indoctrinate pupils and students with his alleged "socialist" ideals. He left the doomsayers with red faces.

Frazier said a return to unity or at least a willingness to compromise can only happen around the president, the country's most visible and powerful symbol. He believed a modicum of bipartisanship would only take hold if the U.S. again faced an extraordinary external threat, such as Sept. 11.

On reflection, he was more optimistic, but not much: "I don't think that we are hopelessly stuck in this nasty place. I don't really think there is anything we can do, but I do think it's possible that the nastiness will run its course."

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