Healthcare reform: America, the violent? How the political parties are complicit.

Throughout US history, major change has begotten radical rhetoric from both political parties. Healthcare reform is no different – and heated words can sometimes spark violence.

By , Staff writer

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    Thomas Jefferson, shown here in an 1807 portrait by Gilbert Stuart, was called the Antichrist by members of the Federalist Party, suggesting that high intra-party tensions are not new to American politics.
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Spitting, brick-throwing, and name-calling. Is this what political discourse in America has come to?

Well, given that Thomas Jefferson was called the Antichrist by members of the Federalist Party, the pitched emotions at a major political crossroads perhaps aren't so surprising – nor are threats against lawmakers.

Instead, this moment is a part of what the American political process is, say some political analysts: Every major shift in policy or political direction is a revolution in miniature, with both sides retreating toward the radical to rhetorically demonize the other.

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The Republicans ratchet up the anger over the country's changing direction. The Democrats play to fears by painting large swaths of Americans as radicals, racists, and rabble-rousers.

"It's part of the balancing act this country has faced the whole time," says John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "If we only had moderate rhetoric, how do you create change? When something is radically wrong, how do you not do something radical to get it back on track?"

"Yelling is one way to get people's attention, and it underscores the intensity of the movement," he adds.

Politics from the fringe

Yet such politics include a measure of risk. Words can, in fact, spark violence.

"If you mix [violent messages] with people who feel threatened by the new political landscape and feel that armed resistance is something that is legitimate, you are lighting a fuse on a literally explosive group of people," David Olson, a communications professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, told PR Newswire.

"When House minority leader John Boehner calls fellow Rep. Steve Driehaus 'a dead man' for voting for the health insurance bill, and Driehaus consequently receives death threats, I think we can see a connection," he said

Teasing out the reality from the rhetoric, however, isn't easy – particularly in the current viral climate, where YouTube, blogs, and television news become instant echo chambers for every sleight.

For every truly reprehensible act of bigotry or violence, there are also instances of misrepresentation to manufacture controversy and "[criminalize] political dissent," as the conservative columnist Michelle Malkin puts it.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D) of Missouri says he was spit upon at an anti-healthcare "tea party" rally where other Democratic lawmakers heard racial epithets. Conservatives say the spit was merely wayward saliva in a yelling match.

At least weekend's tea party in Searchlight, Nev., a tea party bus was egged. Conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart says anti-tea party protesters did it, then tried to blame him when the police arrived.

The cycles of accusation

The incidents – and the accusations and counter-accusations that followed – are parts of a recurring cycle, says Mr. Geer.

Today, many conservatives say liberal agitators and even leaders like House majority whip James Clyburn have embarked on a misinformation campaign to tar modern-day conservatism as the territory of the slightly unhinged.

Five years ago, though, it was liberals who were on the defensive. Many liberals said conservatives were trying to cast them as "unpatriotic" simply because they didn't fall into lockstep with President Bush's post-9/11 antiterror policies.

Historically, losing parties take their time to readjust "to the middle," says Geer.

On healthcare, "the strong reactions from Republicans could put them on the fringe," he adds. "But if the healthcare reform backfires, then it's going to hurt the Democrats."

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