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MCCARTHY: Uncivil political discourse has always been problematic in politics

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Photo by Amy Elliot-Miesel

Photo by Amy Elliot-Miesel

Photo by Amy Elliot-Miesel

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It seems the popular thing to do as of late is denounce the current state of political discourse in this country. Trump has awoken enough outrage that people are finally ready to condemn the hateful rhetoric used in today’s political campaigns.

The latest issue happens to be a viral video of a Trump supporter telling a protester to “Go to (expletive) Auschwitz.” Sure we should be outraged, but should we be surprised? Uncivil political discourse has always been a problem in politics.

In 2013, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote a piece decrying the use of references to Nazi Germany in modern political discourse by both major parties. Now, many people are making comparisons between Trump and Hitler and it is hardly surprising that the same types of dishonest attacks are continuing to be made.

Politics have always been dirty and even violent. Political opponents Aaron Burr and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton fought a duel resulting in Hamilton’s death. Opponents used to refer to First Lady Sarah Jackson as a bigamist because she married President Andrew Jackson before her divorce had finalized.

Jackson himself was far from innocent, saying that his one regret upon leaving office was that he “didn’t shoot Henry Clay” and he “didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.” He is also commonly attributed for saying, “John Calhoun, if you secede from my nation, I will secede your head from the rest of your body.”

There are thousands of tales of political incivility in American history. Representative Preston Brooks famously beat Senator Charles Sumner with a cane on the floor of the Senate chamber over his comments on slavery.

Ultimately, candidates like Trump engage in hateful and outrageous speech because it gets coverage. Media corporations cover outrageous speech because it drives viewership and ratings. If this election has proved anything, it is that coverage and earned media are more valuable than any mailer or advertisement.

Where does responsibility for this type of discourse lie: with the politicians for espousing it, or the media for promoting it?

There is little incentive for politicians like Trump to censor themselves. He’s been significantly outspent by every other contender except Kasich , and yet he has absolutely dominated the Republican primary. Trump’s success demonstrates how much more important earned media is than political advertising.

Some of the blame certainly lies with the electorate. The links that voters click, and coverage they choose to watch inevitably decides what gets covered. The fascination with Trump’s horrible rhetoric gives him a significant advantage in this regard.

This is a difficult issue to solve. Can news outlets refuse to cover outrageous and uncivil discourse or does that clash with their responsibility to inform their viewers?

Political polarization feels like it is at an all-time high. It is easy to succumb to golden-age thinking, especially when considering the political discourse of the past.

The only thing we can do is remember that even the people with whom we disagree, whose views we find disgusting or abhorrent, are people just like us. The only way to combat incivility is with civility.

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1 Comment

One Response to “MCCARTHY: Uncivil political discourse has always been problematic in politics”

  1. Bruce Goodmansen on March 30th, 2016 12:40 pm

    So you believe it was a civil act that was perpetuated on Professor McAdams by the powers of Marquette University?

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