In the US, less than 40% of the population reliably votes no matter what is going on in the country. In the normal Presidential election year, only about 50% of us vote. But there are always those 40% who reliably vote. Who are these people that can be counted on to always vote? Some are Americans who view voting as a their civic duty and study the issues and candidates with the dedication of a university professor. My belief though is that many of these reliable voters are those who are fiercely loyal to their political party, cannot fathom voting anything but a straight Democratic or Republican ticket, who love politics the way some of us love football, baseball or American Idol, and look to politicians and commentators to validate their feelings of frustration with “The Government”. These are, for lack of a better term, political partisans.
My Thoughts On Tucson
In the wake of the tragedy in Tucson, America has been having conversations that are long over due. Across new and old media outlets discussions about the rights and care of the mentally ill, gun rights and the “negative tone” of the political debate in the United States are taking place.
It is the discussions about “negative tone” that have captured my attention the most. Politicians and commentators have been calling for civility and unity. Many wonderful speeches have been made that lead us to believe even our most strident politicians and commentators can pause and assess how their actions may have contributed to this “negative tone”.
Yet sadly from just minutes after the shots were fired, cracks have shown in politicians and commentators ability to change the “negative tone”. Democratic politicians and commentators have repeated “I told you this was going to happen” in so many ways it is dizzying. On the Republican side, we have accusations of Democrats celebrating the Tucson shooter and charges of “blood libel” to name just two of the most outrageous.
What is not talked about in this debate about “negative tone” is why politicians and commentators use such “negative tones” in the first place. The answer is simple – it works.
Politicians and political commentators know this and use it to their advantage. If politicians want to be elected they must appeal to these political partisans. If political commentators want to attract audiences to make money and/or help get politicians elected they must appeal to these political partisans. The “negative tone” we’ve heard lamented over the last few days has been effective in grabbing the attention of these political partisans and giving them a united sense of purpose. It rallies them to vote and it rallies them to watch commentators like Glen Beck or Keith Olbermann.
Politicians have every right to use this “negative tone” to get elected. Commentators have a right to use this “negative tone “to make money. Political partisans have every right to like politicians and commentators who use this “negative tone”. But we cannot ignore the potential violent consequences of this “negative tone”. There was at least one documented violent incident in 2010 before Tucson that was in large part influenced by the “negative tone”.
In late July, Byron Williams, was stopped by the California Highway Patrol on his way “to start a revolution” by attacking the Tides Foundation. Williams was wearing body armor and opened fire on law enforcement with a 9mm handgun, a shotgun and a rifle with armor piercing bullets. Williams’s mother stated he had become upset while watching the news “by the way Congress was railroading through left-wing agenda items.” For three days before, Fox commentator Glen Beck had railed about how, in his opinion, the obscure Tides Foundation plays a central role in the vast left wing conspiracy. (For the record, the Tides Foundation is a non profit involved in AIDS research and education.)
While there has been no evidence that the Arizona shooter was influenced by the “negative tone”, we are still forced to consider the possibility. As a result, the calls for civility and unity have grown in urgency and volume.
If we are serious about changing this “negative tone” now what do we need to do? First, those of us in the 50-60% who are non-voters need to take responsibility for how effective the “negative tone” has become. For too long we have not objected when politicians and commentators play fast and loose with facts or used a “negative tone” to objectify or demonize people with differing view points. More critically, for too long we have neglected our Country by not caring enough to vote. This has contributed greatly to the effectiveness of the “negative tone”.
Fixing this is simple but will require us to devote real time to the care and management of our Country. We need to understand the political discussions that go on around us every day. We need to object when the “negative tone” dominates and facts are treated as needless accessories. We need to exercise the only real authority we have over our Government – we need to vote and vote wisely in every election. If we do these things, we will lessen the effectiveness of the “negative tone” and reduce how often it is used.
If we, the 50-60% who are non-voters, don’t do this the “negative tone” is rewarded. We are in effect telling these “negative tone” politicians, commentators and political partisans that we are just fine living in a country where political discussions are negative and divisive and sometimes create an atmosphere that is so toxic the seeds of political violence are encouraged to grow.