Why Extreme Rhetoric Threatens American Democracy
Why don't Americans vote more? There are several, compelling answers to the question. But the most compelling reason, in my mind, is that political campaigns have become more extreme in their rhetoric. In light of all of the vitriol flying around in the media these days, it seems fairly easy to assume that many people don't vote simply because they are spooked by the lack of civility in politics. There are two major reasons for this lack of civility; political primaries require candidates to win the support of the party base, usually the most loyal, radical followers of the party; and political campaigns spend billions of dollars on negative advertisements on every form of media. The result is that many Americans feel alienated from the two political parties most likely to win.
Politicians like Mitt Romney, who are actually quite moderate, have the most trouble winning over the party faithful. So, in order to win over enough votes to win and go on to the general elections, they have to make a compromise. Most political candidates take a hardline stance on issues in the primaries, and then try for a more moderate message in the general election. This seems like it would work nicely, with moderate voters, now face with a choice between two hopefully qualified candidates with opposing visions for the country. But, in reality, the general election often turns out to be more brutal, costly, time consuming and exhaustive than the primaries.
The biggest driver of political expression is the Media. Media is everywhere, at every time, every single day. They attach themselves to campaigns like leeches to a warm body full of blood. Most of what Americans know, or think they know, about the issues and the candidates, come from one media outlet or another. They get most of their news from a list of several different cable news channels, like FOX, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, and ABC. Not only do most people have a biased sense of the news, but these and other media are shamelessly used as platforms for the worst kind of advertisement in the world, the attack ad. These ads are deliberately used to smear the opposing candidates image, while the said opponent busily responds in kind. What's more, such ads are not used to recruit more supporters, but to reach out to old ones.
What do these two reasons have in common? The rhetoric. It can be hard to tell whether or not the politicians fuel the extremist speech, or whether the media does. Either way, it has the same effect. In calmer days, political campaigns were far less vitriolic, and the media was less sensationalist in its coverage of politics. Richard Nixon began the trend, to some extent, but it really picked up in 1988, when George H.W. Bush tied up Michael Dukakis to Willie Horton, an African American man accused of the rape and murder of a young couple. It was the perfect campaign. It stoked racial fears among white voters, and drove an image of Dukakis being soft on crime.
Such campaigns do nothing to further discussion on any of the important issues facing our nation. Instead, they divide the American electorate and turn off moderate voters. And now, in the era of Citizens United, when money has so much influence in politics and government, the voices and the votes of moderate Americans are being silenced.
So there you have it. Rhetoric is a powerful force especially for Mitt Romney, and it has now become even more powerful, with money to back it up when he fails to captivate audiences the way Obama is capable of doing. Too say that the vitriol is irresponsible just doesn't quite cut it. It is dangerous, to anyone wishing to preserve their First Amendment right to free speech and their ability to make their vote count.
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