Is America’s political atmosphere dangerously hot?

History suggests that the fiery rhetoric is not new. What’s different is Americans’ growing inability to see humanity in the opposition.

Cliff Owen/AP
People walk to a church in Alexandria, Va., June 14 to say a prayer near the baseball field where a rifle-wielding attacker opened fire on Republican lawmakers at a congressional baseball practice. House GOP Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and several others were wounded.

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,” for instance.

But Hodgkinson had some non-political things in common with other mass shooters. He’s been dogged by allegations of domestic violence: court records show he has been arrested at least once for punching a woman and firing a weapon at a young man at the scene of the incident. Neighbors have called police to complain about what they perceive to be his threatening use of firearms.

So what’s to blame here? In general, politics is a rough endeavor. It involves conflict and disagreements. It is fractious and makes people angry, and “rightfully so,” says Professor Kalmoe of Louisiana State, author of “Fueling the Fire: Violent Metaphors, Trait Aggression, and Support for Political Violence.”

“Politics does not lend itself to measured speech,” says Kalmoe.

And this unmeasured speech can have an effect. Kalmoe’s research suggests that it can increase support for actual violence in some people.

“It’s a subset of people who are already predisposed to behave aggressively ... they are more likely to get into arguments or even physical confrontations with their family, friends, coworkers, etc.,” he says.

'We forget we went through civil war'

However, it’s important to remember that the current state of political rhetoric is far from the worst the nation has ever seen. The Civil War shows what happens when partisan rancor escalates to extremes. In the run-up to the war, violent rhetoric sometimes did explode into physical violence.

On May 19, 1856, Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, a Republican, gave a ferocious anti-slavery speech on the Senate floor. He singled out two Democratic colleagues as principal culprits and supporters of slavery’s crimes, calling one a “brutal, vulgar man” and the other a “noisome, squat and nameless animal.”

Two days later, a House member who was a relative of one of the attacked senators beat Sumner over the head with a heavy cane as the Massachusetts man sat at his Senate desk, stopping only when his cane broke into pieces. Sumner was severely injured. The attack galvanized the nation and hastened the coming conflict.

“There is an intensive focus on the here and now. But we forget we went through a civil war,” says Timothy Patrick McCarthy, a public policy lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.

“Every major political, cultural, and social battle has come with a particular kind of rhetoric that has always been heated,” Dr. McCarthy adds.

He says that today it is the Republican Party that is most prone to inflammatory rhetoric, often involving references to firearms. During the presidential campaign Trump himself said that “second amendment people” might take matters into their own hands if Hillary Clinton won the White House and appointed liberal judges.

From enemies to opponents

Others say the vitriol in today's politics is increasing because the nation's political parties are becoming increasingly divided along demographic lines of race, income, and religion.

Over the past 20 years Republicans and Democrats have become more racially, economically, and culturally separate, says Lilliana Mason, an assistant professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland in College Park. Physical and social differences are making it easy to see opposing party members less as people we disagree with, and more as “inhuman others,” says Professor Mason.

US politics may be losing the ability to differentiate between opponents and enemies.

“I don’t think it is coming from the language itself but the general atmosphere,” says Mason.

In that context, the small steps of reconciliation sparked by the Scalise attack – House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaking together on the House floor, for instance, could be important.

“We move from being enemies back to being opponents once we acknowledge the humanity in each other,” says Mason.

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