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.