Monday, March 27, 2006

Can American Political Discourse Be Elevated?

In an editorial in Sunday’s Washington Post Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation, decried the habit in American political dialogue of equating an opposing person or belief with some monstrous dictator or ideology from recent historical memory. These pejoratives invariably invoke one of the two major discredited ideologies of the 20th century, Communism and fascism. On one level Ms. Vanden Heuvel’s argument is deeply satisfying (if not uncommon). When Hugo Chavez is compared to Adolf Hitler or George Soros to Joseph Goebbels, it is tempting to conclude that American political discourse is unacceptably vicious. What we need, Vanden Heuvel pleads, is to discuss political differences in more sober, accurate terminology. While understandable, her argument is misplaced on two counts. First, extreme language is endemic to American political discourse. Even George Washington, often seen as having been above reproach and immune to the give and take of trench-warfare politics, was vilified in the strongest terms by the end of his Presidency. To urge Americans to discuss political differences in more moderate tones is a bit like urging them to stop viewing themselves and their country in idealistic, city-on-the-hill terms. They always have done and always will do. Second, when public figures invoke such silly, overdrawn historical allusions they often do so intentionally. American public discourse is raucous and filled with participants and observers with short attention spans. Often, the only way to gain the spotlight is to shout louder and more crudely than your neighbor. Hence, nuanced discussion is usually lost in the crowd. It is also beyond the understanding of most Americans, who are not necessarily stupid or ignorant, but have neither the time nor the inclination to absorb complex, detailed discussions. Instead, basic, recognizable terms and ideas - like those from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, America’s most famous vanquished foes - are used as proxies for more precise analysis. It is tragic that names like Stalin and Hitler lose some of their horror through repeated, inaccurate usage. However, this is an inevitable byproduct of democracy in a country as diverse, populous and populistic as the United States. Public figures would fail to reach a majority of their target audience if they held forth in terms understandable only to elite segments of society. Like fast food and shopping malls, this type of political discourse developed to suit fundamental aspects of American culture. That elites dislike it is understandable. But calling for it to change is a waste of time.

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