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Tone it down: polarizing rhetoric unwarranted and counterproductive

Published: October 7, 2011
Section: Opinions


During the last couple of years, the political rhetoric emanating from both the left and the right has increasingly been characterized by the tendency to demonize, in black-or-white terms, entire institutions or groups of people.

Conservatives lambast government as a monolithic, corrupt, unproductive force that only serves to stifle growth and innovation and erode self-reliance in favor of dependency and lethargy. They also argue that labor unions, particularly in the public sector, are greedy, self-interested forces that garner lavish benefits at the expense of everyone else.

Conversely, liberals harshly and consistently attack banks and other financial institutions as well as insurance, pharmaceutical, gas and oil companies. They denounce CEOs, executives—particularly those sinister corporate jet owners—and successful businesspeople in general as rapacious and unconcerned with anything besides profits. The Occupy Wall Street movement is only the latest manifestation of these sentiments. Also, it condemns the Tea Party as a bunch of racist loons, despite the fact that Herman Cain has recently been riding the polls.

This is not to mention the resentment and antagonism that is increasingly alienating Republicans from Democrats and vice versa and polarizing America.

My fundamental point is that there are problems associated with all of these things that I have mentioned. I disapprove of a crass populism that seeks to divide rather than unify; that pits disparate groups against one another and employs ad hominem attacks to generate excitement for a particular cause. At best, such rhetoric is misleading. At worst, it can, if taken to an extreme, be interpreted as incitement or it can really cause certain groups to feel vilified, marginalized and unwanted by the greater society. In short, words have meaning.

What I propose then is a political discourse that is more inclusive rather than exclusive and rational rather than emotive. The United States would greatly benefit from a broad national conversation that favors nuance and shades of grey instead of grandiose, Manichean narratives that cast one particular faction or institution as evil, or as a villain.

Consider one aforementioned example: the nature of government. Instead of reinforcing the old Reagan mantra—“Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”—perhaps the right should entertain or at least advertise a more complex view: While there are real waste and fraud and inefficiencies associated with government, there are certain collective priorities that only government can act upon, like providing people with security, education, the rule of law, a safety net and so on.

Similar changes should take place on the other side of the spectrum as well. Incessantly demonizing the private sector and threatening to tax and regulate it in the interest of “fairness,” as President Obama is prone to do, is unwarranted and counterproductive to creating an atmosphere of confidence. Rather, the left should acknowledge the following: While markets can generate excesses that ought to be checked, they also are the primary producers of jobs and creators of capital and investment. Capitalism is the only economic system that is capable of lifting millions of people out of poverty, as has happened in places like China and India, and enabling them to use their skills, talents and individual initiative to their own advantage.

Regarding government and markets, these are basic and obvious truths that are just not heard enough, especially in the most extreme and partisan corners of our society. It seems that politicians in particular are more interested in catchy, mindless campaign slogans that play to their favored constituencies rather than in improving the quality and tone of our political discourse. This needs to change. With yet another election year coming up, hopefully I will not prove to be a naive idealist.