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As Long as We Remember...

July 2, 2018

The Death of Discourse

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

No doubt the sickness that resulted in discourse's death began long ago, probably when the two-party system was created. But there's little question that the approach of death has quickened with the election of the 45th President of the United States.


Yes, while it's hard to imagine, there was a time when Republicans and Democrats could genially converse on the topic of politics. Even harder to believe, in those grand years for political discourse, partisan office holders would actually meet with the opposites over drinks and dinner after a day of heated legislative battle.


The history of Ronald Reagan’s presidency includes frequent references to he and then-Speaker of the House Thomas "Tip" O'Neill (D., MA) sharing a glass of scotch after a particularly bruising policy fight. At the heart of their debate was the indisputable fact that they both loved America, and in equal measure.


In today's deeply damaged political environment, it's almost impossible to imagine widespread collaboration and cooperation on any topic, from the most complex to the most mundane. It's almost never about what's in the real interest of the citizenry; it's about how to score public perception points against the other side.


This Sharks v. Jets mentality solves nothing but the further widening of the gulf between those who identify as conservatives and those who consider themselves liberal.


And the worst part? Our own habits, language and actions are directly contributing to the coarsening of our political speech. Like rats on a sinking ship, we follow our lesser angels and jump right into name-calling and finger-pointing. We hear something, or read it on social media. It may or may not be true, but if it bolsters our own bias, we tend to believe. Facebook allows us to immediately share the news, again without regard to its fundamental truth.


If someone should dare challenge our thinking, we immediately respond, and the rhetorical level elevates exponentially with the back-and-forth. They harder they resist, the more vituperative our response. And on and on it goes, like a wildfire of anger and confrontation, reaching beyond our expectation due to the ever-expanding nature of the platform.


We're compelled to act by our handlers in the media. It's easy as pie to find a voice that is saying essentially what you want to hear, that your own biases are based in fact, and that some pretty talking-head on cable news can cite a source to verify that. This has never been truer since the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th POTUS.


Unlike any other national political figure in history, save maybe Andrew Jackson, President Trump was thrust onto the political scene in a cloud of controversy. The loud, brash and unconventional New York real-estate developer was unique in his view of politics. In other words, he ran as an outsider, a nonconformist and a disrupter of politics, not a faithful student of it.


To President Trump, politics was merely a way of identifying the people you needed to buy off or influence in order to get your project approved and built.


As voters, we've been taught to see our political leaders as visionaries that carefully wield the controls of power to forward a specific and partisan agenda. Mr. Trump sees it very differently. He sees most elected officials for who they really are, more concerned with their ability to win re-election than to actually accomplish anything of real meaning. Instead of a battle of ideas over the intricacies of policy, President Trump sees this all as a zero-sum game, either he wins or we lose.


Can he still accomplish important policy outcomes? Of course he can. In fact he already has. Business deregulation, job-creating tax cuts, the opening to North Korea, rebuilding and strengthening the U.S. military. It's a reflection of the point of this column that you're reading this here versus seeing it on TV news.


The media, and many on both sides of the great divide, see any Trump victory – or positive storyline – as totally unacceptable, and maybe even dangerous. They like the pre-Trump model, they understand it, and when it works as designed, it seems to improve and enhance their stature. It also helps to cleanly divide the voting population, which ensures the re-electability of these lifelong political animals.


Look how often former President Obama is sought for his opinion. His predecessor refused to comment on Obama's policy wins and losses, citing the need to allow the president room to move as he gained important experience. Barack Obama was commenting on Trump's inaugural speech the day after he took office for Heaven's sake.


All of that conspires to make the unconventionality of the Trump Presidency a danger to the political and media status quo. The larger question is whether we, as people who have a fundamental need to interact socially, have to carry forward this anger and animosity in our interpersonal interactions?


Certainly our political overlords hope we do. In that instance, we retreat deeper into our respective holes. Ratings continue to grow for Fox News as conservatives isolate themselves, while pretty much every other media outlet sees their numbers grow as liberals and progressives need to hear their own biases confirmed.


But through it all, our own use of filthy or hurtful dialogue to attack something we either disagree with, or don't fully understand, weakens us in the end. It makes us seem less intelligent, less thoughtful and less appealing.


Each nasty Facebook post, or tweet on Twitter, accelerates the death of political discourse, and moves us further from the future envisioned by our Founders.


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