It’s little wonder today’s political discourse is polarized. The folks doing most of the arguing know so little about the past they cannot justify their views with historical evidence or data. So they appeal to emotion, name-calling, stereotypes and hyperbole.
A few recent examples: MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry described the word “Obamacare” as a racist label “conceived of by a group of wealthy white men who needed a way to put themselves above and apart from a black man.” Did she offer proof to support her accusation? Of course not.
Closer to home, state Sen. Mike Delph used his Twitter account to debate HJR-3, a proposed constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and woman. He was immediately attacked by fellow tweeters as a hater, a bigot and “delusional.” If he’d been hoping for a healthy exchange of views about the history of marriage or the effects of family structure on child well-being, he was surely disappointed.
Name-calling isn’t new. Look at accounts of the election of 1800 and you’ll find nasty rhetoric from both John Adams’ and Thomas Jefferson’s supporters. Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams weren’t very nice in 1828 either. What’s new is the complete lack of historic perspective on the part of the name-callers.
In a speech last year, the historian Gary W. Gallagher said, “Ignorance about the American past gets in the way of fruitful public debate about current issues of surpassing importance. This ignorance affects what passes for discussion of politics and other issues on the 24-hour news channels, on the Internet, and in newspapers. A shrill tone often dominates in all of these settings, frequently set up by ‘analysis’ that is strikingly uninformed.”
The immigration debate is one such example, he said. On one side, opponents argue illegal immigrants are an economic drain; on the other side they are an economic contributor. One side says they take jobs no one else wants; the other side that they take jobs away from U.S. citizens.