Conversation Stoppers

On Election eve, a Boston television station opened a half-hour newscast with a story on Chris Rock making a joke about the fatal bombings at that city’s marathon in 2013. “Twenty-six miles is a long drive.... You finally get to the finish line, and somebody screams, ‘Run!’” the stand-up comic said as host of “Saturday Night Live.” George Carlin or Mel Brooks might have made a similar shock-value joke decades ago, but it provided a focal point for outrage, at least for one or two days this fall. The television reporter found random Bostonians who dutifully repeated the premise that Rock had insulted their city. An implicit point was that Rock, a New Yorker, had no right to comment on a tragedy owned by the city of Boston.

In coming up with a way to distract viewers from the next day’s election, the newscast inadvertently summed up recent political campaigns. Outrage and umbrage are the tools to drive supporters to the polls, and political ads make appeals to tribalism rather than to any sense of a common good.

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“He’s not for you” was the tagline of an ad for Wendy Davis, the Democrat who ran for governor in Texas against the eventual winner, Greg Abbott. The same slogan was used on behalf of Michelle Nunn, the Democratic nominee for a Senate seat in Georgia, and Mitt Romney used it more specifically in his 2012 presidential campaign, in an ad describing the Affordable Care Act as a “massive new government program that’s not for you.”

The “you” in such pitches almost never refers to the entire citizenry, but rather those who already feel part of an aggrieved slice of the electorate. “Not for you” is another form of inoculation against believing, or even listening to, anything the other side says.

“War on women” is another phrase used to stir up outrage. It easily caught on in a profession loaded with military metaphors (“targeting” voters, “battleground” states). In 2012, a fundraising email from the Democratic leader in the House, Nancy Pelosi, warned supporters: “The national media and our opponents will use our grassroots fundraising totals to measure the strength of our opposition to the Republicans’ War on Women.” This “war” charge now bundles up anyone who’s skeptical of pay equity laws, or wants to reduce the scope of social welfare programs that primarily benefit women and children, or wants to restrict access to abortion. All these positions can be held sincerely without any hatred toward women, but “war” is a handy way to brand half the population as not worthy of being listened to. Republicans, stung by the phrase, further trivialized military aggression this year by claiming that the Democrats are waging a “war on coal,” as if environmental laws are just a pretext to throw white West Virginians out of work. Late in the campaign, Senator Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, said to a reporter, referring to Obama’s unpopularity in her region, “The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans.” Instead of accepting this accurate historical statement and moving on to argue that things have changed, the state’s Republican chairman called the senator’s remark “insulting to me and to every other Louisianian.” The effect, aided by political reporters looking for political “gaffes,” was to tell Landrieu to sit down and shut up.

Also in October, a staffer for the Republican Senator Ted Cruz tweeted, “Before Obamacare, there had never been a confirmed case of Ebola in the U.S.” Obama defenders have been making sarcastic comments like this for years, but when a Republican did it, the assumption was that he was dead serious, and the uproar led to a contrite “Earlier tweet was bad joke.... Deleted.” The Republican staffer had crossed partisan lines and mocked his own side, and some Democrats rushed past confusion to arrive at blind indignation. Sit down, shut up.

The elections of 2014 brought infinite examples of political opponents talking past each other, not settling for disagreement when they could move on to righteous denunciation. As America’s editor in chief, Matt Malone, S.J., has written, there is a financial incentive for such bitterness, with the media “producing content that pits one faction against another” (Of Many Things, 11/17). There is a place for spirited debate, but too often we ascribe the worst possible motives to people who make us feel uncomfortable or challenge our beliefs. This is not a trend that makes more open-minded citizens look forward to the next election season.

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