Paranoid Hype in Political Discourse

Paranoid Hype in Political Discourse November 5, 2012

I wonder how many of those who make ridiculous paranoid claims about presidential candidates actually believe them, and how many of those who originate them do so knowing full well that they are false, but hoping that enough gullible people will fall for them to help swing the election.

Fred Clark has a nice round-up of right wing predictions of post-election doom and gloom if Obama is elected, from what he aptly describes as a “sub-Christian” perspective.

But it is not as though the left does not have a comparable problem, even if it seems to me to be someone less severe and insane for the most part. Democracy would not vanish if Romney and Ryan were to be elected, any more than it has vanished since Obama and Biden were, or would be if they were to be re-elected.

The truth is that our society has a selection of checks and balances in place that means that no president can unilaterally change the fundamental nature of the way the nation functions. But also, however large the contingent in the United States of the gullible, of paranoid conspiracy theorists, of racists, of Communists and Nazis and whatever else, my impression is that they are a small fraction of the entire population. Their vote, added to that of others, may make a difference. But after the election is over, most people whether Republican or Democrat want to work, earn enough to make a living (and hopefully more), live a peaceful life, and not do any of the insane things that someone in the other party might caricature them as liable to do. And so it seems unlikely that any apocalyptic predictions centered around who is elected will transpire – or at least, if they do, it will probably not be because of who became president.

Yet the truth is that paranoid conspiracy theorist rhetoric is typical of our presidential campaigns, and yet under no president from either party did the world end, nor were any of the directions our country took which some of us may regret due to the influence of the president alone.

As a Christian, I believe – and have heard time and again from the pulpit – that words have an impact. I remember the analogy that a professor once used of someone throwing a brick through a window, then going inside and saying “I’m sorry, I take my brick back.” We often try to take back our words – but the harm remains done. And even when we don’t take back what we said or apologize, we often try to live as though we didn’t do the harm that we did by our words. If we continue to throw exaggerated claims back and forth on behalf of two parties which are relatively close to one another on the political spectrum, then we should not be surprised when we discover our country to be deeply divided and in very bad moral health.

Presidential elections matter. But so do honesty, kindness, and respect. How do we change the way most people, most parties, and most candidates approach elections? If enough people stop simply uncritically accepting what this or that party or candidate says, or take a hard stance on exaggerated rhetoric and misrepresentation, could we change the election culture in the United States?

Let me end on this humorous note, with the choice between candidates according to Google’s autocomplete function:

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  • Marilyn Gardner

    As someone who lives in Massachusetts – believe me when I say that Christians in this state are not the ones who are paranoid. My colleagues and friends truly believe that if Romney is elected then it is the end of the civilized world; the end of everything. One woman is doing a presentation for me and has already warned me that she will be unable to do it if Romney is elected. All of my daughter’s friends in Cambridge are tweeting that their parents will be moving to Canada should Romney win. Christians by contrast are actually impressing me with their level headed responses in this area – a “God is still God no matter the outcome” philosophy. All this to say that the amount of insanity demonstrated by right or left wing depends on where in the country you live.

  • Claude

    Obama is a cactus.

    This is an outrage! Republicans are evil. : )

  • Straw Man

    All good points. On the other hand… the civil discourse you’re pining for is one in which Obama is, and Romney aspires to be, killing foreigners and American citizens alike without any semblance of due process. In the face of ongoing atrocities, where does civil discourse fit exactly?

    Imagine attending a dinner party of two rival slave-owners. Someone makes an impassioned appeal for civility. Everyone gets misty and shares a group hug. They hold out their cups to be refilled by the otherwise invisible slaves milling around the room. As the slaves are taken out back and sold, the guests pat each other on the back for their civility.

    Or imagine more macabre imagery, in which dead Afghan children are the furniture at the dinner party. Can’t we all just get along? Except the Afghans, of course. I mean can’t /people/ get along; I’m not talking about üntermenschen at all.

    • I don’t think that we all have to agree, nor do I find both candidates or both parties equally worthy of my vote. I think that one can turn down the dial on the hyperbolic rhetoric without it meaning that we all simply agree and engage in a group hug.

      • Straw Man

        “Hyperbolic rhetoric” in the antebellum South would be anything approaching a true appraisal of the atrocity that was slavery. Similarly, anything approaching a real assessment of the President’s new power to order people killed on his say-so alone will be deemed “hyperbolic rhetoric.”

        For example, after the NYT reported what it called Obama’s “secret kill list” on May 29 this year. It called it that because the administration admits there’s a list, and clearly enough the list is secret, and on the list are people whom Obama has issued orders to kill. But… since then, a video blogger has asked various members of congress “what they think of Obama’s secret kill list?” The man was reviled for his hyperbolic rhetoric, and the legislators in question walked away, sometimes having their security guards interpose themselves to keep the gadfly away. (One legislator, to his credit for honesty, proclaimed himself foursquare in favor of this “kill list,” with the usual equivocation of calling the people on it “terrorists” instead of “alleged terrorists.”)

    • Claude

      Because an appeal to be not enemies, but friends can only be trivial due to American complicity in evil. After all, Lincoln restored the union and emancipated the slaves from the immaculate perch by his keyboard.

      I sure hope the anti-war movement adopts your “Americans are Nazis” tactic. Sounds like a winner.

      • Straw Man

        Claude, you’re not making sense. I’m asking a different question entirely. How does an appeal to be friends, issued by slave owners to slave owners, strike you exactly? Similarly, we’re talking about a call for “civility” in a discourse where things like this new presidential power to order people killed without due process, or to wage war in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, etc., without a declaration of war, are considered outside the bounds of polite discourse.

        Civility requires unquestioning acceptance of the shared norms of both sides, precisely in the same way that civility in political debate in the antebellum South requires strict avoidance of the topic of slavery.

        • Claude

          I understand the question you were asking. What on earth makes you think discussing abuse of power is outside the bounds of polite discourse? On the contrary, it’s a staple of political discourse.

          Straw man, indeed.

  • Kaz

    You probably don’t realize how often I agree with you, since I often merely smile when I agree, yet my responses when I don’t are more articulate;-) This comment struck me:

    “I wonder how many of those who make ridiculous paranoid claims about presidential candidates actually believe them, and how many of those who originate them
    do so knowing full well that they are false, but hoping that enough gullible people will fall for them to help swing the election.”

    I would change the focus and ask, I wonder how many of those who hear ridiculous claims BY candidates actually believe them, and how many of those candidates who originate them do so knowing full well that they are false, but hoping that enough gullible people will fall for them to help swing the election.

    Where we differ here, I suppose, is that in my assessment, the rhetoric, exaggerations, distortions, convolutions, lies, absurdities, realities, sound judgments, altruistic desires, hopes for the betterment of all, etc, flow fairly equally from both parties.

  • Just Sayin’

    Thing is though, the checks and balances have failed, as outsiders can see:

  • angievandemerwe

    Part of the danger of social media is that friends pass on info and without thinking we trust and don’t investigate, at least that is true for me.. I do think that there have been more abuses of power in the last two administrations than I remember in a long time…but perhaps I wasn’t engaged enough, as good possibility…