This piece appeared as a newspaper op/ed in November, 2021.
From 1992-2002, I did a whole lot of talk radio on WSVA in Harrisonburg, VA. A regular guest on one show, host of my own show. The audience was predominantly conservative. (And the station broadcast Rush Limbaugh daily for three hours.)
For half my shows, I’d frame a controversial topic – some issue that divides us. And for the other half, I’d frame some “question of meaning and value that we face in our lives” – something about our common humanity.
In that era, it was possible to have worthwhile discussions of political issues – even hot-button issues like homosexuality and the legacy of the Civil War — with respectful discourse and genuine exchange.
But such shows would be impossible now.
What’s changed? Two things:
Incompatible pictures of reality
1) Back in the 1990s, despite important differences between liberals and conservatives, the two sides’ pictures of reality – their “facts” – overlapped enough to enable people to talk productively across the divide about what’s real.
But over the years, the two sides came to inhabit starkly different realities: one side had a view with the normal degree of validity, while the other’s was increasingly constructed around falsehoods.
The reliance on lies in the political messaging of Conservative America has increased over time.
Exit polls showed that George W. Bush won re-election because of millions of voters who held three different false beliefs about the Iraq invasion they’d been taught by FOX News.
(Believing, for example, that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, though the failure to find them had been a huge story; and that the world had applauded the U.S. for its invading Iraq, when protests from governments and peoples around the world had been widely reported.)
It was about that time that trying to have good political discussion on the radio became an ordeal.
Once again, during the Obama presidency, important lies were cultivated in the Republican base. What kind of conversation can one have, about Obama, with someone who simply knows that Obama was born in Kenya, and therefore is not legitimately President of the United States?
There was a good reason why I ran for Congress in 2011-12 against a 20-year Republican incumbent under the slogan, “Truth. For a change.” Already, the Republicans’ statements – on virtually every issue — showed no concern about the truthfulness of what they said. Whatever works.)
The role of falsehoods in the “reality” presented in the Republican world has now reached the point where the “Big Lie” about the 2020 election being stolen is now the Republican Party’s central dogma. The great majority of the Republican base has made it clear that those few Republicans who have been unwilling to tell lies — who honor their oath and do their constitutional duty – will be driven out of office.
How would I create a constructive public conversation with callers who think their guy got robbed, rather than that he’s the would-be thief?
The Rise of Hate
2) Then there’s the second big thing that’s changed since the 90s: the intensification of the level of contempt and hostility directed at liberals by America’s conservatives.
I was aware, doing radio in the 90s, that a big part of the audience considered me pretty “other” for being a liberal, a Democrat, a Yankee, an intellectual.
They were right: I am not one of them.
But it is possible for people from different streams of culture to respect each other’s personhood. That’s what we strove for on those radio shows, and often achieved.
But hate has grown in power, as can be seen at various levels.
Liberals are reporting more unpleasant experiences with people across the divide, from people who in earlier eras who would have regarded people in the opposing party more as “fellow Americans.”
(At the extreme level, from the edges of the American right – no longer held at arm’s length by the Republican Party — we can see a rising threat of violence toward people on “the other side.”)
The rise of hatred in the Republican world can be seen at the national level of Trump, and his cultivation of a following among white supremacy groups and neo-Nazis.
But scornful antagonism gets expressed down to the local level, like with the Chairman of the Republican Party in my county (Shenandoah) who, at the County Fair a few years ago, put up a banner at the Republican booth calling Democrats “baby-killers.” That banner was hung facing the Democrats’ booth just across the narrow walkway.
I don’t see myself in the least as a “baby-killer,” and I don’t know how I’d be able to have a worthwhile conversation with someone who’d been taught to see me that way.
If one is to participate in a worthwhile conversation, it is best not to come to it from a place of contempt, disgust, hostility – the feelings the conservative world has been cultivating in the Republican base since the rise of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich.
What does this picture show?
- Alternative reality. (Who is called “the Deceiver”?)
- Hatred. (What is the opposite of the God of Love?)
What kind of force is it that would work to divide people, using lies and hatred to burn their bridges?