Is American political discourse today too harsh? Maybe it is. Many pundits and officials are calling for more civility in the wake of last week’s shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise (R) of Louisiana and several others at a GOP baseball team practice.
But consider this: US politicians have been slugging it out, metaphorically speaking, since 1776. The presidential election of 1800, contested by two giants of history, is one rough and tough example. Incumbent President John Adams labeled challenger Thomas Jefferson a weakling and a coward. The Jefferson camp replied with a famous political insult, slamming Adams in print as a “hideous hermaphroditical character.”
Hundreds of years of American experience shows that most political hyperbole doesn’t result in political violence, say political scientists. Citizens realize that it is a symbolic expression of the understandable emotions caused by disagreement over national issues.
Sometimes it does push people over the line, however. Tough words can affect partisans already predisposed to violent action, say experts. That’s a response that’s difficult to prevent. Under the First Amendment, virtually all kinds of political speech, even the roughest, is protected.
“The only way we can really approach this is as individuals and leaders thinking about the kind of language [we] are using … making a collective choice as a political community,” says Nathan Kalmoe, a political communication professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
The suspect in last week’s shooting, James T. Hodgkinson, portrayed himself on social media as a committed Democratic partisan. He posted extensive anti-Trump commentary. He volunteered for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.
That’s caused many on the right to say that harsh media attacks on President Trump and other Republicans were a big factor in the attack. Rep. Rodney Davis (R) of Illinois called the shootings “the first political rhetorical terrorist act,”…