Experts: American political discourse more divisive than ever; By Mike Wereschagin, Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Jan. 11, 2011
Max Schaeffer doesn’t talk about politics. It’s not worth the aggravation.
“It’s like politics has become the third rail. I don’t want to talk politics with anyone, because it’s going to devolve into an argument,” said Schaeffer, 38, of Philadelphia.
That anger goes deeper than discourse, he said. It’s unclear whether it played a role in the massacre in Arizona on Saturday that killed six people and injured 14, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
But “there seems to be less room for people of goodwill to disagree,” said Daniel Santoro, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown. Debate over poisonous politics, in which opponents are often portrayed as dangerous to the republic’s survival, have occupied much of the discussion since the attempted assassination of Giffords.
Economic worries, the packaging of opinion as news, scars from Sept. 11 and myriad changes have taken their toll, Santoro said.
“People are dissatisfied with the government and the way government does things,” said Mary Plouse, 74, of Newport.
In a sign of people’s economic worries and fear for the future, 47 percent of voters think the state is on the wrong track, compared to 39 percent who say it’s headed in the right direction, according to a Susquehanna Polling & Research survey conducted for the Tribune-Review.
“The polling these days definitely shows that people are becoming increasingly more polarized, and it seems as if voters are locked into their positions on so many issues these days,” said Jim Lee, Susquehanna’s president. He cited President Obama’s job approval, which “is just kind of stuck, with half supporting and half opposing.”
The country has gone through tumultuous, divisive and more violent times than these, from the Great Depression to the social upheaval of the Vietnam era. What’s different this time, Santoro said, is “we didn’t have 24-hour news in the ’60s.” Commentary packaged as news has given people new sources of anger, he said.
“I don’t want my own kids growing up in a country where Republicans only watch Fox News and Democrats only watch MSNBC, so I’m worried about where we are headed as a nation,” Lee said.
As happened during other economic downturns, the market for radical opinions has grown, Schaeffer said.
“Are you going to pass laws telling people what they can and can’t say? That goes against everything we stand for as a nation,” Schaeffer said. “I don’t see that Michael Moore is much better than Rush Limbaugh. I think they play on people’s emotions, and they make a lot of money doing it.”
“It might just be a period of time we’re in,” Schaeffer said. “And, hopefully, it passes as soon as possible.”