Hate speech, or modern politics? New rhetoric revives tradition of all insults, all the time
It certainly is not the first time in America’s long history of political rough-and-tumble that an elected official was labeled a “socialist,” or called “a clown,” or had his or her essential integrity questioned.
But it might be the first time a politician had all of that said about him in a single sentence in an on-the-record statement sent to a reporter by a spokesman — apparently sober — for a major political party.
In another era, the verbal blast at Rep. Adam Schiff, the Burbank Democrat, by the National Republican Congressional Committee communications director last week could have been read as a one-off display of zealous advocacy. Except these days it felt less like an aberration than the logical extension of a trend. The language of politics is turning more and more brutal.
Democrats routinely call Republicans liars, corrupt, fascists and racists. Republicans make a veritable campaign strategy of calling Democrats socialists, un-American, anti-Semites … and racists.
This month, after Schiff, chairman of a committee investigating ties between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia, led all House Democrats by raising $1.8 million for his re-election campaign in the first quarter of 2019, a newspaper asked NRCC spokesman Chris Pack for his take on what it meant.
“It means,” Pack emailed back, “Adam Schiff is a socialist clown who has benefited handsomely from flushing his integrity down the toilet and making a mockery of the House Intelligence Committee.”
The statement was not out of tune, though, with the NRCC’s Twitter feed. During a two-week window ending Wednesday, April 24, the NRCC’s tweets slapped the labels “socialist,” “anti-Semite” or “racist” on Democrats in 45% of its posts. And all of the tweets issued during that period were jabs of one sort or another at the other party.
But a similar statement from Democrat official would not be out of place on the Twitter feed of the the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. During the same two-week period, the Dems slammed Republicans for lying, corruption, bankrupt character, moral bankruptcy and election fraud, though the feed did take a break to squeeze in Happy Easter and Happy Passover messages.
The blunt rhetoric, from President Donald Trump on down, is intentionally simple. But the explanations for what has changed about the language of politics are complicated, say connoisseurs of the genre.
And uncivil tongues, they note, aren’t new in American politics.
“That’s pretty outrageous language,” Derek Humphrey, a Democratic campaign consultant based in Riverside, said of the Republican slam at Schiff. “I guess it’s hard for me to say it’s gotten much worse (than language used to be). Maybe the style has changed. There’s a new sensationalism to it all.”
Experts in politics and communication said that for much of American history, particularly the 19th century when voters weren’t as educated and there were no online fact-checkers to flag false claims, the things candidates said about each other made today’s style sound tame.
Then, in roughly the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, came a “period of civility and bipartisanship” in which voters seemed to prefer a more congenial tone, said Don Brownlee, a retired professor of communications studies who also coached the debate team at Cal State Northridge.
Rhetorical poison was watered down wit and refinement.
In a 1988 vice presidential candidates’ debate, after Republican Dan Quayle compared his experience to President John F. Kennedy’s, Democrat Lloyd Bentsen’s famous response was straightforward yet expertly measured: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Brownlee noted Bentsen’s nuance.
“He didn’t say, ‘You’re an uneducated hillbilly from Indiana.’ The way it was communicated wasn’t a direct personal attack,” Brownlee said.
Political rhetoric actually grew cooler during the period when television became ubiquitous and newspapers became less partisan, said Dan Schnur, a former Republican spokesman and strategist who now is a professor at USC’s Annenberg Center. Trying not to offend their new, broader audiences, the media gatekeepers among TV producers and newspaper editors favored more moderate rhetoric — and politicians projected friendlier vibes.
This changed with the rise of partisan cable TV networks, including Fox News and MSNBC, and the advent of the internet and social media, where audiences could self-select news to reflect their own partisan views. Invective was rewarded with audience.
With more people firmly in the red or blue camp, campaign strategists use language to motivate their own side’s voters, not to win over the shrinking number of people who can be swayed.
“Terms like ‘socialist’ and ‘fascist’ tend to be much more exciting for a party’s base than a nuanced conversation about how to provide health care and stop illegal immigration,” Schnur said.
Schnur recalled Democrats, during the presidency of Republican George W. Bush, routinely referring to evangelical Christians as “the Taliban wing of the Republican Party.”
While sharper language is a symptom of the widely decried incivility of modern politics, it’s also a practical result of the ways political messages are delivered.
When much of political messaging is delivered by Twitter, people have to say as much as they can in 280 characters or fewer, said Roxanne Beckford-Hoge, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the California Assembly in 2018, losing to incumbent Adrin Nazarian, D-Van Nuys.
“People are compressing it into ‘socialist — bah!’ and ‘fascist — bah!,’” said Beckford-Hoge, an actress and small-business owner who calls herself a “grammar junkie.”
“Twitter isn’t helping the language.”
But Beckford-Hoge said nastier language has the virtue of adding “clarity” to political debate.
“I think that was part of the Donald Trump phenomenon — the language,” she said. “(Trump said) ‘People are lying to you. I’m going to tell it to you straight. I’m not going to use fancy words.’ “
The word “socialist” might not be as clear and universally scary as it’s intended to be. Its definition varies, depending on who’s listening. Polls show a growing number of Americans, especially among Democrats and young people, view socialism more favorably than capitalism.
Humphrey, the Democratic consultant, said it’s “ridiculous” to affix the scarlet S to Schiff. He said the 10th-term congressman and former federal prosecutor was viewed as a milquetoast moderate until he became a lightning rod for claiming that evidence of collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia is in plain sight.
Michael Clements, a former legislative staffer who founded the Long Beach community discussion forum Beer & Politics, said that in gentler times the use of loaded, heated language was almost always followed by an apology.
“The apologies aren’t coming anymore,” Clements said.
Indeed. Asked about his statement, Pack, the NRCC spokesman, stood his ground.
“If anything, I am being polite with that description of him,” Pack said by email, calling Schiff’s actions on the House Intelligence Committee “clownish and pathetic.”
Brownlee, the communications-studies professor, said he isn’t sure what’s ahead.
“One (insult) that almost automatically qualifies as libel is to say somebody is diseased,” Brownlee said. “We probably haven’t gotten to that point, because medical records are sealed.
“I hate to think what we might be calling ourselves (next) that isn’t done now.”