Analysis: Partisan slander moving at the speed of light

Monday, October 12, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON — Vitriol and invective stain American political history, but the poison of falsehoods, half-truths and innuendo now spread with the speed of light across partisan airwaves and the Internet-the din drowning out the country's moderate political center.

Countless Internet blogs have taken on the administration of the first African-American president, claiming — falsely — that President Barack Obama isn't an American citizen, is a secret Muslim, is a socialist, wants to establish death panels to decide when elderly Americans would no longer receive medical care and be allowed to die. The list is long.

Most recently, a partisan furor blew up when President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Opposition Republican national chairman Michael Steele set the tone, declaring that giving the prize to the U.S. commander in chief showed "how meaningless a once honorable and respected award has become."

Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, was not immune, nor was former President Bill Clinton. But today the volume of screeching partisanship is cleaving the American electorate, perhaps, as deeply as at any time since the U.S. Civil War a century and a half ago.

"The environment is much more extreme today because of the level of public involvement, the level of incivility among both the political elite and the public," said Chris Dolan, a political scientist at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.

At Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., Clyde Frazier said: "It is nasty and getting nastier." While he believes American history is littered with dirtier political periods and nastier claims among politicians, Frazier, also a political scientist, sees today's climate partly the result of the "media culture."

"Vitriol seems to sell. If you are telling people the end of the world is at hand, they watch," Frazier said.

From the lectern at the White House briefing room, spokesman Robert Gibbs routinely bemoans what he sees as the negative slant on coverage of Obama by the conservative Fox News cable television outlet.

While Americans once sought news from media outlets that aimed for objectivity, they are now turning to sources that reinforce their political viewpoints, including the conservative Fox news and the liberal MSNBC on cable television and the exploding blogosphere that ranges across the political spectrum.

The heated partisan atmosphere produced a staggering break with decorum last month when Rep. Joe Wilson shouted out "You lie!" as Obama spoke to a joint session of Congress, extolling his efforts to overhaul the American health care system.

Wilson's outburst drew the South Carolina Republican a rebuke from the House, but, tellingly, supporters quickly began donating heavily to his political war chest. Obama backers did the same for Wilson's Democratic opponent in the 2010 election.

Not long afterward Florida Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson took the House floor to attack minority Republicans on health care, declaring: "The Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick." A Republican congressman quickly drafted a call for Grayson's reprimand, but the matter was later dropped.

Partisan political pundits took both events and ran with them. Conservative Republicans praised Wilson's courage as liberals voiced shock over his lack of respect for the president. Grayson took praise and heat from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

"Political animosity has become professionalized," said Frazier, specifically mentioning talk radio's ultraconservative Rush Limbaugh, who openly calls for the failure of the Obama presidency. Fox News host Glenn Beck has called Obama "a racist" who has "a deep-seated hatred for white people."

The revival of bitter partisanship has built quickly and steadily since the nation united behind Bush in the aftermath of Sept. 11. It was quickly discovered that Bush's rationale for going to war in Iraq — claims that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons — was untrue and the temporary unity dissolved.

"It's a hard thing to stop and it is escalating" each time Republicans or Democrats cede power in the capital, said Jack Holmes, political science professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich.

Is there a way out?

"At a certain point the public will demand an end, [and] say 'we want this to stop,'" said Holmes. "The public has to demand it and will start judging political leaders accordingly."

A signal moment arose when Obama came under attack from opponents when he planned an Internet address at the start of the school year to encourage students to work hard and stay in school. He was accused, before the very moderate and apolitical address, of wanting to indoctrinate pupils and students with his alleged "socialist" ideals. He left the doom-sayers with red faces.

Frazier said a return to unity or at least a willingness to compromise can only happen around the president, the country's most visible and powerful symbol. Given that, he said at first, that he believed a modicum of bipartisanship would only take hold if the U.S. again faced an extraordinary external threat, such as the Sept. 11 attacks.

On reflection, he was more optimistic, but not much: "I don't think that we are hopelessly stuck in this nasty place. I don't really think there is anything we can do, but I do think it's possible that the nastiness will run its course.

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