Thursday, July 14, 2016

Is the Poisonous Political Conversation Mere Noise, Or Does It Suggest Worse Things to Come?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Extreme vitriol has become the coin of the American political realm in 2016.  The seeds of ugly political discourse that Newt Gingrich so deliberately planted and nurtured have fully flowered.  Too many conservative politicians and pundits now regularly denounce candidates as "sick," "pathetic," and other lovely bits of invective.  Some (thankfully not many) people on the left respond in kind.  Naturally, the public takes notice and adapts its own dialogue to copy what it hears emanating from the political mosh pit.

The interesting question is whether this low level of discourse has any impact on actual political outcomes, and even more importantly, on the policy choices that must be made after elections are over.  I do not have a definitive answer, but I suspect that things are getting worse, that this does affect elections, and that governing is becoming ever more difficult because so many people are willing to attack other people with so little restraint.

As an admittedly (and happily) rather minor player in the current universe of political and policy commentary, I receive a stream of responses from readers.  Much of that reaction is constructive and helpful, but a notable subset can be eye-popping in its negativity.

Last December, after I wrote several critiques of Donald Trump, I received a long, rambling email from an angry reader.  It was so interesting in its unusual way that I decided to reproduce it in full in a subsequent post, and I added some thoughts on how that reader had so accurately channeled Trump's style of outrage, insult, and grievance.  What is notable, however, is that the angry reader was at least attempting to make arguments, weak though they were.

In the half-year since then, many of my writings have been published on Newsweek's Opinion page.  This, of course, had the effect of expanding my readership to a more mainstream audience, beyond the policy wonks and academics who are the bulk of the readership of Dorf on Law and Verdict.  Much larger numbers of readers, in turn, led to many more responses.  This was an expected part of the territory -- and a welcome one, even the inevitable subset of negative responses.

In the relatively short time that Newsweek has been running my articles, however, I have noticed an increasingly nasty tone among some readers.  More significantly, unlike my angry correspondent from late last year, the responses have become almost entirely devoid of content.  Perhaps these changes in tone and content simply coincide with the run-up to the political conventions and the public's increasing attention to the general election.  Or perhaps they reflect something longer lasting and more worrisome.

Everyone who writes or speaks publicly has told me that they receive these types of responses with some regularity.  I do not engage with social media, but even from second-hand sources (e.g., news reports about Trump's tweets and re-tweets) it is obvious that there is a fair bit of ugliness there.  But the particular medium of communication does not seem to matter.  People sitting at home can anonymously input content into their end of "a series of tubes," gaining satisfaction by virtually telling someone off.

My writings recently have focused on the presidential front-runners, and because I take a liberal perspective and support Hillary Clinton, some readers are unhappy with what they are reading.  Again, no surprise there.  The run of responses that I have recently received is, however, interesting in a number of ways.

There are two kinds of "ad hominem" attacks.  One disparages a speaker in an abusive way, while the other disparages the speaker's opinion because of something about his life or situation.  "I don't have to listen to you because you're stupid" is not the same as "I don't have to listen to you because you're a lawyer."  These can, however, also be combined: "I don't have to listen to you because you're a stupid lawyer."

As I noted, many readers are no longer even attempting to offer counter-arguments.  It is all about venting.  One wonderfully brief response, in its entirety, was: "Your an idiot."  [Note: I am reproducing all quotes with typos and other errors intact].  Another woman must have discovered a thesaurus of vulgarity, because her most restrained sentence described me as a "shit stain."

It does not take long to grow a thick skin about such things, especially after a career of reading student evaluations for my courses.  Comments in my courses always run about 75/25 positive, but the negative comments are often inventive.  Negative student comments are an accepted fact of life among professors.  So reading negative reader responses is anything but shocking.

Interestingly, unlike anonymous student evaluations, many people apparently see no reason to try to hide their identity, no matter how much they are violating the normal rules of social propriety.  Although some readers use online nicknames, most people sign their responses and even provide facts about themselves (their jobs, their home states) that suggest that they feel no embarrassment about screaming into a stranger's virtual face.  (In many cases, I suspect that alcohol might also be playing a role.)  If they are bothering to take the time to bark at me, I assume that they do so to others as well.  I am surely not the only person writing pro-Clinton, anti-Trump things.

So, there are people out there who spend time writing content-free, abusive ad hominem attacks and sending them to people they have never met.  Another group of people (overlapping with the first), engages in the second category of ad hominem attacks, dismissing my writings because of something about my professional circumstances that the reader does not like.  In the example that I wrote about in December, the line of attack that implicitly begins, "You're obviously wrong because ... ," ends with "... you're a lawyer."

For most readers, however, two other circumstantial matters about me seem to matter most.  One such line of attack, it turns out, is not true: Many readers assert that I am on the Clinton payroll.  They assume that only a paid shill could write something with which they so strongly disagree, so they dismiss me for having supposedly sold my integrity.  I guess that is something of a back-handed compliment, because they seem to assume that I am otherwise able to think as clearly as they do, but I simply have my price.

This line of attack, by the way, has turned out to be bipartisan.  During the primaries, after I wrote a column endorsing Hillary Clinton, a "Bernie Bro" angrily told me that I was obviously being paid by the Clintons to lie.  Although I have always rejected the lazy Trump/Sanders equivalence that so many reporters have relied upon, it is obvious (especially in the reports of the online abuse that the chairwoman of the Nevada Democratic Party endured after the caucus there ended in chaos) that Trump supporters are not the only ones who are willing to go negative.

But it is my critics' other circumstantial ad hominem line of attack that I have found most interesting of all.  Focusing on my profession, they dismiss my point of view because obviously (in their eyes) all university professors are biased and untrustworthy.  And it is not just people without college degrees who are willing to say so.

For example, I received an email last week from a man who both gave his name and identified himself as a former president of my law school's Republican Student Lawyers Association.  He devoted almost all of his comments (taking a quick detour to call Hillary Clinton a "dolt") to smearing professors.  Among his comments: "The truth is such facts don't fit your political agenda so YOU and all the other liberal professors with your constant barrage of leftist drivel can ALWAYS BE COUNTED ON to change the argument."

Easily the most interesting negative comment that I have received, however, was a long, profanity-laden outpouring from a guy who assumed that he knew everything about me (and even my childhood) by virtue of the fact that I am an academic.  He warmed up with this: "Your recent article reeks of elitism; not surprising coming from a member of 'academia' who never worked, thinks callused hands are an abomination at cocktail parties and believes sweat to be a disease."

By the time he had gotten rolling, I learned that I am "a pure fucking idiot" (abuse mixing in with the circumstantial attacks) and that "I'd bet your kids call you 'father' in mimicry of all who wish to be 'elite' and never used their hands for anything beyond raising a cocktail glass or masturbating when alone and afraid in their pathetic beds, ruing the fact that they were ignored and never hugged in childhood."  The insecurity -- social, intellectual, personal -- fairly bleeds through the screen.  It is as if this reader has binge-watched the sitcom "Frasier" and thinks that everyone with an advanced degree lives and acts like the effete character Niles Crane.

Of course, it would not matter to any such reader to know that what he wrote about me happens not to be true, because it only matters that he can dismiss me for being an elitist, which is apparently per se true of all professors.  The particulars do not matter, because my conclusions themselves are -- as a matter of such a reader's core assumptions -- proof positive that my career in higher education has warped my point of view.

I recount these few examples not because I expect that they are different from anything that other people in my situation encounter every day.  Instead, I am interested in reflecting on these examples to ask whether the vehemence and lack of content of such responses reflect something larger about politics in 2016.

I do think that the tone of these responses helps to explain why elected Republicans are so intent on taking down Clinton, even if it means electing Trump (whom Republican officeholders almost universally rejected from the beginning).  My columns that support Clinton evoke even more negative responses than columns that criticize Trump.  Many Republicans in Congress probably agree with their rank-and-file in their hatred of Clinton, but even those who disagree must surely receive fierce blowback at even the suggestion that they are going soft.

All of which means that the Republicans' response after Clinton wins in November will be even worse than I have long feared.  If people thought that Republicans did everything possible to oppose Barack Obama, they are in for a surprise.  Clinton-haters turn the dial up to 11.


Fred Raymond said...

There is no need for Mitch McConnell to declare that the GOP prime directive will be to make Clinton a one-term president. It is clearly understood in advance.

Joseph said...

Coming at this from the other side of the aisle, but admittedly having had less time observing politics than you, I find the placing of substantial blame on Republicans suspect. Pretty much everyone's political understanding is largely defined by observations during their own lifetimes and I wager the Clinton years loom large in your political consciousness. I don't have knowledge of how the parties behaved in the 90s, versus the 80s, versus the 70s, etc. I know that name-calling and slanderous claims have been around since our nation began, articulated by some of our most revered founders. I know that Harry Reid has been a particularly pernicious voice in our politics in recent years. Certainly the media terrain is radically different than it was in the 90s and before and that factor would seem greater than one party all of a sudden becoming super bad. I think we can expect extreme vitriol from either side no matter who wins. One side will feel totally justified in either event...

Shag from Brookline said...

Perhaps a Newbe who lived through the Bush/Cheney 8 years has a base for what the Republican Party had become might understand the Republicans' immediate reaction to Obama and the need of the Republican Party to thwart Obama at every step right from the beginning and the failure of the Republican Party to limit Obama to one term. Going back in time an earlier Republican Party during the New Deal vigorously challenged Social Security as it was over time recognized as an achievement of the Democrat Party Then advancing to LBJ and Medicare, the then Republican Party challenged Medicare in a similar manner to Social Security, with Medicare also being recognized over time as an achievement of the Democrat Party. Then advancing to Obama and the ACA, the Republican Party burdened with the Bush/Cheney 8 years, did not want ACA to succeed as it would add to the achievements of the Democrats earlier with what became over time popular achievements of the Democrat Party. To combat ACA, the disgruntled Republican Party post Bush/Cheney referred to ACA as "Obamacare," to tie it to Obama in what might have been intended as a derogatory term. Perhaps by referring to ACA as Obamacare was a political mistake as it has survived. Some of the current Republican base don't want government to take away their Social Security and Medicare. Over time there may be a similar view of some portion of the base of the Republican who don't want the government to take away their healthcare aka Obamacare but now preferring to call it by its true name the Affordable Care Act. Frankly, not too far in the future I expect the Republican Party to complain that Obamacare is too complicated and a single payer system comparable to Medicare would be much better. History can provide lessons without actually have observed politics first hand, if a Newbe wants to give a little thought to what took place earlier. Would a Newbe prefer the pre-New Deal days?

Joe said...

"I know that Harry Reid has been a particularly pernicious voice in our politics in recent years"

I don't know. He as the leader of the Democrats in the Senate has had some strong partisan moments, as one would expect, but "particularly pernicious" as namecheck worthy compared to numerous other politicians (Alan Grayson? not a big fan)? Not to me.

People are going to view things somewhat through their own lens but realizing some people don't like Hillary Clinton, she is no Trump. When Bush became President, Democrats worked with Republicans to vote in a major tax cut and other things. It took a lot to get three (one who later became a Democrat) Republican senators to vote for a stimulus package. Not ONE voted for the final PPACA bill (though they did vote for amendments).

I'm not going to convince but no "both sides aren't the same."

Troeltsch said...

somewhat interesting that in a multivariate world, you attribute the fountainhead of political vitriol and hate to a single variable: Newt Gringich. It is an interesting hypothesis, just one you have failed to prove.

Joseph said...

Shag, your comment is strange and disjointed. I think the topic at hand is partisan rancor, who is responsible and where it's going. I think you're saying that political success yields greater backlash and that Democrats had some big successes so that's the problem. Except that doesn't explain why Prof Buchanan traces things back to the 90s (a period of time you skip right over). History certainly can provide important lessons - that's my point. The important lessons we should know are the quality of political discourse in America. As I noted (using History!), even the founders would get nasty. If we are tracing the history of partisan rancor we should know the history of it. You offer a theory based on some well-known historical development. You recommend giving "a little thought," but a little thought can be a dangerous thing.

Joseph said...


I think there have always been bomb-throwing loons like Grayson, and I wouldn't paint an entire party by identifying lone-wolf little-loved members. Wasserman Schultz may not be particularly ept but it certainly is her job to be an enormous partisan. Reid is a legislative leader and has admitted to brazen acts of dishonesty and exhibited gross acts of immaturity that I think go exactly to the professor's diagnosed problem. Whether we can blame the GOP for him too is yet another argument.

It's a funny thing to pat Democrats on the back when a GOP administration offers policy proposals favored by Democrats, including Ted Kennedy's No Child Left Behind and tax cuts for low income people. Certainly those laws were not perfect in the eyes of Democrats (or Republicans) but Bush tried very hard to get Democrat support throughout his administration, even going so far as to pursue immigration reform.

There was no comparable effort by the Obama administration, especially regarding its biggest efforts. On the ACA, he derided Republicans and floated the promise of a pilot program regarding malpractice reform if they supported the Democrats' bill. It was laughable stuff.

I do agree with you that we shouldn't conclude that both sides are the same, as non-partisans are so often willing to do. I just think there is a better explanation than the GOP as most of y'all already knew are bad guys. I think the media environment has played an enormous role. The happenstance of who controls the executive and the legislative branches contributes to partisan rancor (of course) and how those two branches interact. Bush pursued many non-conservative policies which may have mitigated some partisanship - although not enough to avoid the Senate Leader calling him a "loser." Obama has absolutely failed at making meaningful attempts at bipartisanship and pursuing a non-partisan agenda.

I think "who is worse" will depend on the circumstances, regardless of who each of us think is worse now.

Shag from Brookline said...

Joseph, my comment that you respond to was focused on your admitted lack of observations during, apparently, your lifetime. As to my going well back before the 1990s, that's due to my observations during my lifetime, beginning in the 1930s, longer than Neil's lifetime. I didn't feel the need to focus on the 1990s as Neil did quite effectively. Rather, my focus was on the Democrats successes with what become over time popular programs as hallmarks of the Democrats despite the efforts over the years of the New Deal to the present to denigrate those successes. The topic at hand is much broader than you think. In your response you stress history as your point. But what history did you refer to in your earlier comment other than this generality:

"I know that name-calling and slanderous claims have been around since our nation began, articulated by some of our most revered founders."

relevant to the discussion? By the way, you have demonstrated your concern that:"a little thought can be a dangerous thing." Perhaps I should have suggested you give a lot of thought. Political parties change over time, including their bases. The Republican Party of today is 180 degrees from the Republican Party of Lincoln, at least since Brown v. Bd. of Educ. (9-0, 1954) when i was finishing up law school. The Democrat Party started changing at that time as well. [I intentionally avoided mentioning the civil rights movement, which was a major reason in the changes of both parties.] Politics is strange and disjointed. Obamacare, providing healthcare, a basic right for many, is not yet up there with Social Security and Medicare. So the current Republican Party of Trump continues with efforts to demonize Obamacare but over time that effort most likely may not succeed. You may consider my comment as strange and disjointed but it may be that you gave my comment little thought. But how thoughtful was your earlier comment?

Joseph said...

Shag, what is remarkable about your latest response is that you validate what I said in my original comment.

I suggested that Prof Buchanan may be relying too much on his own observations and that bias may be at odds with actual history. Where he focused on the 90s, you said it began with the New Deal "due to my observations during my lifetime, beginning in the 1930s, longer than Neil's lifetime."

Can you see how that was exactly my point?

My comment was quite short and I said in that comment that I don't know how the parties behaved in the 90s, versus the 80s, versus the 70s, etc. It's strange that you take me to task for not saying more about history than I did. I admitted I don't know the history of partisanship in America. You've offered a theory and a list of well-known historical events.

While the topic can include policy successes and how parties change in response to them, that doesn't address partisan rancor and whether it actually has gotten worse and the reasons for it.

I didn't say anything about your strange name calling ("Newbe" -- apparently even the internet hasn't seen it spelled that way) in the hopes you might be interested in a real dialogue. I don't understand your hostile tone given my straightforward criticism of the argument. With due respect, your posts are Exhibit A for my argument that modern media brings out the worst in political debate. You might see the irony in responding to me with insult given what Prof Buchanan's post was about.

Shag from Brookline said...

Joseph, exactly what did you say in your original comment in what you claim is validation of your view of my comments? Here's the opening sentence of your brief original comment responding to Neil's post:

"Coming at this from the other side of the aisle, but admittedly having had less time observing politics than you, I find the placing of substantial blame on Republicans suspect."

You then went on to reference your personal non-observations of the Clinton years and several decades prior thereto and thus your inability to respond to Neil's post by way of observations by you. Perhaps you got to your side of the aisle with your observance of Bush/Cheney and the performances of Republican candidates beginning in the 2008 campaign and now with the 3016 Republican campaign. Maybe you have a different idea with your pithy comments on past political name calling.

In any event, I sense that you have Trumpian sensitivities. So i regret the use of my misspelled "Newbie." I try to remain hip with what is new lingo for a geezer such as me. Perhaps I should have used "politically naive." As to modern media, I have become aware of Trump's use of tweets, although I do not engage in them personally. But this is a legal blog, with a relatively small audience. I share many of Neil's and Mike's views, although I consider each to be a tad to my right. Joseph, you have spoken from your side of the aisle and I have spoken from my side. I know what got me to my side but I don't know who got you to your side (and I really don't care to know).

Now in my "Newbe" comment, I was not critical of a "Newbe" for not being aware of history. Rather, I thought I might provide a view of my observances from my side of the aisle beginning with the New Deal (the reason I got on my said of the aisle). There was relevant history during the Roaring Twenties of Republican Administrations that dumped the Great Depression on the lap of FDR and his New Deal in 1933. But since your original comment focused on your lack of observations on the Clinton years and prior decades, I did not go back that far with what was history for me.

So, Joseph, your original comment did not serve to push discussion further on Neil's post. Rather you made some pithy comments to the effect that "Politics ain't beanbag and never has been and probably never will be." Perhaps you felt that your pithy comments effectively challenged Neil's post from your side of the aisle. But I assume you have been observant of the Trump phenomenon with the current Republican Party. We've had Father Coughlins, Strom Thurmonds, George Wallaces in the past. But Trump has made it to the top of the heap. I read Neil's post as having this in mind.

Joe said...

I don't agree with you that Harry Reid deserves to be singled out like you did Mr. S.

"no comparable effort by the Obama administration"

First, the situation was different from 2000 when Bush did not win the popular vote & the Senate was basically a tie. In 2008, the Democrats won both houses and the presidency by a comfortable margin. So, honestly, Bush warranted (and needed) the olive branch more, not that he simply did that. Republicans weren't going to put forth NOTHING Dems wanted, especially including No Child Left Behind, which had Republican support etc.

Second, I didn't say Bush didn't try. And, "pat on the back" here was saying that Democrats were willing to compromise, including supporting a tax break. OTOH, the Republicans from the very beginning joined together to block. I'm not making Dems as saints here. But, the not lefty authors of "Broken Branch" on Congress put more blame on the Republicans for a reason. Some like the united conservative toughness (not absolute but all things being equal that's an honest labeling) of Republicans here but fair is fair. Let's not ignore it.

Finally, the Obama Administration repeatedly worked to try to compromise with Republicans. The stimulus package deemed necessary early on for the economy was reduced and the chance for more (very well sensible economically) put aside in large part given the needs of the 60 votes necessary in the Senate (basically a few Republicans and Blue Dog Dems).

The core basis of PPACA was a free market system conservatives promoted in the passed. Single payer or public option was basically off the table. Amendments that Republicans wanted were added. And, for months, efforts were seriously made to get Republican support -- a leading Republican said "80%" of the bill was okay. But, not.a.single Republican voted for the final bill. Wouldn't even vote for cloture to allow it to be cleaned up (and later some sanctimoniously criticized it being sloppy).

Obama worked with the Republicans on immigration, including working out a bill that once had 70 votes or so in the Senate as I recall. Had various components liberals didn't like. But, Republicans didn't support a final bill. He tried to work with them on guns, including on a bill two leading NRA supporters in the Senate sponsored.

What "comparable" means is unclear to me. It is not some childish idea Republicans are "bad guys." It is -- and again some like this and think it's fair, but come on, let's be HONEST about it -- they are playing hardball even in when it is clear stuff has broad support and real compromises are being made.

Joseph said...


"Joseph, exactly what did you say in your original comment in what you claim is validation of your view of my comments?"

Again: I suggested that Prof Buchanan may be relying too much on his own observations and that bias may be at odds with actual history. Where he focused on the 90s, you said it began with the New Deal "due to my observations during my lifetime, beginning in the 1930s, longer than Neil's lifetime."

You say, "Politics ain't beanbag and never has been and probably never will be." While obviously true, that would not be responsive to Prof Buchanan's post. If you re-read my pithy posts (I can't tell if you think "pithy" is a bad thing), you will see that I accepted the premise that partisan rancor may have worsened and I called for a more rigorous review of why that is the case. Such a review should be based on much more than personal observations clouded by personal political bias. My call for greater self-awareness has perhaps yielded predictable results.