It Goes to 11: Ideology and the Increase in Ad Hominem Political Discourse

A wise man will study the opinions from all sides of a question to improve his knowledge of the underlying dispute. Whether this scribe counts among the wise is open to debate, but modeling the behaviors of the wise is surely a start, on the theory that a journey of a thousand steps begins by letting a hundred flowers bloom.  As such, although I’m a center-right conservative, I frequently read the perspectives of libertarians, liberals, socialists, anarchists, reactionaries, centrists — the rich range of contemporary political discourse. I’ve found this engagement has helped me to better define my own arguments while occasionally giving me an opportunity to correct various distortions or elisions that “my” side may perpetrate, sometimes accidentally and sometimes not.  I’ve even changed opinions on some things (e.g., civil unions) based on reasoned argumentation posed from outside my tribal echo chamber.

Alas, over the last few years, it seems that the investment in this process pays ever smaller dividends.

What fascinates are two simultaneous trends, both fueled by bloggers.

First, within the conservative movement, the mainstreaming of a handful of influential bloggers has led to a sharpening of the knives — with blades directed inward. The folks at Red State are perhaps the most top-of-mind, but they’re not the only ones. Divorced from the need to actually win elections, they content themselves to play the kingmaker, with ideological purity and loyalty to a self-defined “conservative base” serving as the paramount virtues.  That folks like Erick Erickson and the activists at Heritage Action believe they’re empowered to define what constitutes authentic conservatism (i.e., “what Mitt Romney isn’t”) is bad enough; that more established and more prudent voices haven’t mounted a healthy defense of a more robust and well-rounded definition of contemporary conservatism smacks of kowtowing to the barbarians at the gate without even bothering to pour flaming oil o’er the rampart to see if the ruffians will scatter.

Second, within the progressive movement, it seems like snark and invective increasingly substitute for coherent argument. Once upon a time — those far-away days of the second term of the Bush administration — I’d read the headlines from FireDogLake or Talking Points Memo; although I rarely agreed, at least on balance I’d encounter well-formed opinions to make the effort worthwhile. Nowadays, vulgar epithets reign supreme and simply asserting that someone is a Very Bad Person is considered the “QED” part of the argument. Contemporary progressive bloggers — with notable exceptions like Hamsher, Kaus and Mitchell — usually engage in more spleen-venting than discourse, and bumper-sticker sloganeering constitutes the breadth and depth of most progressive writing nowadays. Even local bloggers get in on the act; Michigan Liberal refuses to refer to Gov. Rick Snyder as anything but “benevolent overlord Rick Michigan.”

And don’t get me started on the libertarians; reading Reason sometimes enlightens, sometimes infuriates, with clear fact-based reasoning in one piece and smug condescension dripping from the next. The ultimate political box of chocolates.

So. Picture American ideology as a spectrum. It’s not black-or-white, or even a tri-color bar. Instead, it’s a sliding scale of opinion animated by value judgments that date to the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Inasmuch as some would like to identify a laundry list of personal policy preferences and ascribe them as the only authentic form of whatever -ism they favor, the average person doesn’t break into a clear, pure ideological archetype. Except, of course, for politicians who vote according to their ideology, but that’s more a matter of cynicism than belief.

In the current environment, some conservative bloggers are looking more and more like mafioso enforcers, whereas progressive bloggers are looking more and more like spoiled six-year-olds simultaneously deprived of a favorite toy and effective parenting.

Is it any wonder that people feel like contemporary political discourse is more polarized?

The parallel to institutional Catholicism is astonishing. Over the years, bishops largely stopped exercising the role of moral authority, delegating those functions to those with an agenda more politically tactical than ecclesiologically strategic. The bishops wasted their moral capital, to the point that even Barack Obama thought he could roll the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over the recent contraception flap.

In like manner, mainline political leaders either ignored the problem of hyper-aggressive activists or pandered to them. Very few have actually stood up to them in a meaningful fashion, despite that they don’t really represent even their respective bases.  Where’s WFB’s successor when we need him? Or the next Daniel Patrick Moynihan?

Instead, we have weak political leaders who respond more readily to a small sliver of their home ideology’s activist base than to the demands of responsible governance.

I’m not sure that America is substantially more polarized, recent statistics notwithstanding. I think people are more willing to fit themselves into certain canned ideological categories, but much like with ethics, no one really fits well into a single bucket. The difference is that it’s easier in the Age of the Internet for self-appointed commissars of purity to purge their ideological segment of the kulaks than for political leaders to stand up to the bullying.

Just like with the bishops in the 1960s and 1970s, but I digress.

The TL;DR version: If you’re tired of increasing ideological polarization, look no further than the unchecked ad hominems flowing from those who’ve been most successful at seizing the megaphone. Until political leaders step up and actually lead, we can look forward to more of the same.

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