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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The danger of campaign signs

The bitter political divisions in America have turned some traditional election activities into risky actions.  Election campaign signs are intended to familiarize people with candidates and their names, and to create and interest in and show support for the candidates by the people who display their signs.  However, by displaying partisan signs, people are applying labels to themselves that identify them as enemies to the opposing party.

The problem is that the  political dialogue in our country has deteriorated into exchanges of hate speech. Donald Trump is the result of a degeneration of thought and word that has been at work for a couple of decades, at least.  People hardly ever state political disagreements in reasoned and respectful terms.  Rather, they call the opposition demeaning names and accuse them of degenerate things.  Their words do not inspire thought, but provoke anger and a desire to lash out.  Mindless anger has displaced rational thought as the currency of politics.

The seeds were planted decades ago with midnight talk radio  in which "hosts" would introduce some insanely provocative topic and invite people to call in and comment.  To keep the phone lines busy the hosts would encourage the ignorant, the stupid, and those possessed by some demented obsession to vent over the air.  The audience for the talk shows had two major components:  those people of limited intellect who were ignored in general society; and those who were entertained or made to feel  superior by foolish rantings.  Talk radio gave the stations a surprisingly substantial audience during the gloomy hours when most people were asleep.  It was a refuge for the superstitious, occult, and spurious, and popular enough so that national programs could network throughout the nation and give local radio stations a cheap way to fill the dreary hours.

Talk radio became the foster home of conspiracy theories.  It nourished and propagated them.  It gained such an audience that it was moved to prime time with the likes of Rush Limbaugh who became the voice of American conservatism.  His harangues became the model for conservative political discourse.

Limbaugh's technique is to lie about everything, insult, defame, ridicule, and violate every rule of respectful and productive discourse.  But he became one of the most prominent political commentators in the nation, and local radio stations found "hosts" who bring his debasement to local politics.  Fact checkers analyzed Limbaugh's falsehoods and found an astounding degree of untruth.  In one sampling of Limbaugh's statements, Politifact found this distribution of truthfulness:

True:                   0%
Mostly True:      5%
Half True:         13%
Mostly False:   26%
False:               31%
Pants on Fire: 26%
Limbaugh's response was to conduct a defamation campaign against fact checkers.

For the ignorant, stupid, and hateful souls who were possessed by the worst demons of humankind as opposed to Lincoln's better angels, Limbaugh and his emulators legitimatized mindless scurrility as a mode of political discourse.  Donald Trump has totally adopted the Limbaugh playbook for lies, insult, and abuse as his mode of communication.  By this summer, he was recorded as telling more than 4,200 lies to the public during his term of president.

His supporters, of course, claim that the liberals are the ones guilty of making up malicious accusations.  Consequently, the contest between Republicans and Democrats has devolved into each side regarding the other as motivated by a malicious dishonesty.  This contempt affects the way the way people hear and read political messages and how they perceive campaign signs.

I have examined responses, including my own, to signs in an effort to understand how people read and react to them.  The hateful dialogue of contemporary politics has established the context  that controls the responses.  Rather than registering the name of a person on a sign and endeavoring to assess the qualifications of the individual, the first impulse is to determine what party the candidate belongs to.  If the person is a Republican, he or she becomes associated with  Limbaugh and Trump and the people who endorse them.  Such association labels them as enemies of democracy.  

And when conservatives determine that a sign is for a Democratic candidate, they associate the displayer of the sign as a communist or a socialist or a bleeding hearted snowflake or whatever label the conservative media uses to denigrate Democrats.

So, when people move about town and see signs in private yards, they identify the householders as Republican or Democrat. And accordingly, they decide if that neighbor is an ally or any enemy.  They are reacting to the insulting, defaming, and threatening political discourse that has conditioned their response to the opposing party.

When it comes to inspiring hostility, the GOP has a strong edge over Democrats.  It has developed personal attacks and defamation as effective campaign tools.  There is no dispute that appeals to hate win elections for them.  When Democrats and independents see a GOP campaign sign, they automatically associate it with the scurrility that comprises many Republican campaigns. 

Campaigns are what has driven the wedge to American society that has made the political divide irreconcilable.  Who wants to have a friendly relationship with people who defame and disparage others as a way of life?  And so, when many people see a campaign sign in a yard, they take it as a warning that the people who live there are they kind they should avoid.  It is a matter of semiotics:  what a sign says on its surface may signal a menacing danger in its deeper intention.  The campaign season becomes not a time to make a choice about who to vote for, but a time to identify which of our neighbors to stay away from.  The signs call up the political practice that the signs support in a larger context

Political signs send a quarantine message to stay away from the people who display them.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Such a great editorial, Mr. Newquist! I would only add this thought: the Candidates and their volunteers who place the signs on public right-of-ways like road ditches etc. just add to the angst and debauchery of the democratic process by their blatant disregard of the laws against such placement.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States