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Opinion: When Political Discourse Becomes Bullying

With the extremes sucking the oxygen, we’ve traded thoughtful argument for shaming

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant in Virginia last month. The hounding of government officials in their private lives is not protest but bullying, Winston writes. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant in Virginia last month. The hounding of government officials in their private lives is not protest but bullying, Winston writes. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

There was a time when I saw appearing on cable news shows, both left and right, as an opportunity for a civil debate on serious policy issues. That was probably naive, but I believed in the inherent value of proof-based and polite argument in providing the nation with the information to make good policy choices.

But as time went on, I began to feel like Michael Palin in the famous Monty Python “Argument Clinic” sketch. In the comedy bit, Palin goes to the “clinic” to buy an argument. He pays out his five pounds, but when he meets his “arguer,” Graham Chapman immediately goes on the attack.

Palin complains, “I came here for an argument.” Chapman apologizes, “Oh, oh, I’m sorry, but this [office] is abuse.”

And that perfectly describes what argument or debate on cable news has devolved into. During the George W. Bush administration, political criticism began to morph from robust policy arguments to hardball opinion, with little evidence to support either participants’ reasoning or claims.

And I discovered cable news didn’t care as long as the verbal combat was loud and vitriolic enough to attract eyeballs. When I got a call to appear on a program, a producer would do a pre-interview with me to get an idea of my views on the subject for the day.

This gave the host some sense of how the discussion might go. So far so good. But by the late 2000s, producers became less and less tolerant of a balanced point of view. They wanted red meat and pressured me to take a position that offered more contrast. If I balked, there was a good possibility that a few hours later a call would come in, saying they had “changed the topic.”

But if I did make it to air, I got regular prompts in my earpiece from the producers telling me to “feel free to interrupt” the other guest or just “go ahead and respond” before the host could get back into the conversation. They weren’t interested in a real discussion. They just wanted prepared talking points — and the more outrageous the better.

If the conversation became heated, I got kudos from the control room for a great segment. If not, I could expect a quick exit and a perfunctory thank you.

New lows

It didn’t take long for political pundits to turn themselves into on-air bullies. My fear was that this trend toward more and more contentious exchanges in political discourse would have unintended negative consequences. I wasn’t alone in issuing that warning.

But rather than stepping back from the precipice, politicians, the media and voters themselves have taken political discourse to a new level. As rhetorical temperatures spiked, our politics became more focused on cult of personality rather than policy. It all became so very personal and petty.

Over the past 10 years, we’ve experienced a perfect storm of partisan rancor and angry division driven by political leaders answering only to their base and adherents willing to embrace any and all rhetoric to further the cause. Policy differences, whether under President Barack Obama or this president, seem overwhelmed by this focus on partisanship and personality.

Meanwhile hyperconflictive TV is whipping the current hyperpartisan environment into something far more problematic, even dangerous. Social media has become the conduit for transmitting in nanoseconds cable news controversies stoked by political provocateurs with few boundaries or limits. Its anonymity gives license to vile and hateful rhetoric on both sides.

The Collins Dictionary defines a provocateur as “a person who deliberately behaves controversially in order to provoke argument or other strong reactions.” And that’s exactly what I worry about now — the other strong reactions we’re beginning to see, not only here in D.C., but even more alarmingly, around the country. In fast food joints and front yards, on college campuses and practice fields, extremists take to the streets harassing opponents and media they disagree with, making a mockery of the long-cherished American tradition of peaceful protest.

Watch: Red Hen-Like Issues Aren’t Going Away, And They’re Creating a Democratic Divide

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The B word

What we’re seeing today when government leaders are hounded in their private lives isn’t protest. It’s bullying, and it’s time we call it what it is.

It’s bullying when a teenager gets a drink thrown on him for wearing a cap. It’s bullying when a White House press secretary and her family are booted from a public restaurant. And it’s bullying when we hear extremists equate the Holocaust with U.S. immigration policies while calling their opponents “Nazis” and “fascists.” One pundit’s response to those who feel empowered to invoke Hitlerisms is exactly right: “Read a book.”

President Donald Trump could also go a long way toward regaining the high ground and lowering tensions by worrying less about providing red meat for the base and more about bringing the country together with fewer tweets that inflame both sides.

Values matter to people. Rather than listen to angry partisans debate an issue based on whether Democrats or Republicans have cornered the market on moral authority, they want to hear an argument based on facts that gives them the knowledge to make an informed decision on matters of policy.

They don’t want a debate on whose values are better, or more American, or more important. They want policy choices that reflect their values and will work for them. But instead, the focus on making issues conflictive rather than conciliatory is now a political staple, and that’s frustrating the majority of the electorate, who are not part of either partisan base.

To provide some perspective, according to the 2016 election exit polls, self-described liberal Democrats made up 18 percent of the electorate, while 21 percent called themselves conservative Republicans — leaving a huge 61 percent of the electorate sitting in the middle.

For those embracing conflict as a political strategy these days, you’re either on the team or you’re not. You’re either opposed to all things Obama or all things Trump or you’re “not on the bus.” Whether it’s immigration or tax cuts, the lines are drawn and you cross them at your peril, whether you work on Capitol Hill or the burger joint around the corner.

This kind of absolutism leads to ludicrous statements like, “All Obama voters just want free stuff,” or “All Trump voters are racists.” This isn’t discourse and shouldn’t be accepted as such.

John Boehner was known for his line about public discourse: “We can disagree, without being disagreeable.” Instead, we’ve traded thoughtful argument for shaming, and peaceful protest for bullying.

Shame on us if we let this continue.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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