Political Discourse in the Modern Age

@WeThePeople #oftheUnitedStates

When Ben Shapiro took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, he declared: "The era of political correctness is over. Political correctness is dying a slow, painful, bloody, agonizing death. And all I can say is, hell yeah."

Shapiro is a star among conservative pundits who traffic in "owning libs," – that is, issuing intentionally provocative statements to rile up left-leaning Americans. People like him, Ann Coulter, and Milo Yiannopoulos all seem to thrive on being barred from speaking on college campuses, and are enjoying more celebrity at this moment in history than any other.

“Without civil discourse, we can’t converge around a common understanding of the public good.” – Jeffrey Rosen

Shapiro's speech – which naturally included chants to "lock her up!" – served to exemplify how divisive personalities have contributed to a growing problem in American politics: a discourse that is lacking in civility; which makes it difficult for the polity to achieve consensus on divisive issues. The divide between the left and right has grown to a point experts believe rivals the gulf that created the Civil War. A point of contention is how people are expected to communicate. Liberals often see the advent of "political correctness" as a societal triumph; a testament to how far the nation has come in terms of respecting marginalized groups. Conservatives see the same discourse as a trespass on the First Amendment, and a threat to American life.

Jeffrey Rosen is president of the National Constitution Center, and sees the divide as threatening to a concept at the heart of the American system of government. The deliberative process, as Rosen describes, was envisioned as a constraint on irrational action by the American people. "The founders didn't create a direct democracy," he said. "They created a representative republic where representatives thoughtfully deliberated for the public good. They also believed in slow deliberation and the importance of time. They thought quick decisions would lead to demagogues and the mob, and that thoughtful majority could only crystallize if people had the time to deliberate over long periods of time."

If incendiary pundits are the sparks that set political bases aflame, technology is the rush of oxygen. Social media, in particular, has accelerated the speed at which people can communicate, leading to a form of direct communication the Founding Fathers consciously avoided (lest @AaronBurr go and block @AlexHamilton). Rosen notes how James Madison called the idea of elected officials communicating directly with their constituents a "democratic evil." He and his cohorts were afraid elected officials could be swayed by vocal minorities if they were not kept at an arm's distance. Twitter's rise has effectively erased that created distance, a reality that Rosen said "would have alarmed the framers" of the Constitution.

Rosen points to a host of issues that have contributed to the era of hyperpartisanship, led by Twitter and Facebook. Such platforms have allowed Americans to create what's becoming known as "filter bubbles." The algorithms that power the sites are designed to show users content they are likely to enjoy, because if they're looking at articles and posts they agree with, they're more likely to log in more often. Filter bubbles allow Americans of different ideologies to live in their own realities. Com­bined with the proliferation of actual fake news, Americans are less likely than ever to reach a common understanding of any particular issue. "The rise in fake news is a terrible challenge to the essence of the Madi­son­ian ideal," said Rosen. "The need to converge around a common understanding of facts is central to the whole idea of deliberation and the public good."

Rosen believes the cumulative effect of technology and extreme partisanship has been the erosion of civil discourse. But he stresses that one must not confuse the concept of civil discourse with that of political correctness. Where the latter has become a cudgel used by the far right to hammer perceived sensitivity within liberal factions, civil discourse plays an important role in American democracy. "Without civil discourse, we can't converge around a common understanding of the public good," he asserted. "So, civil discourse is not just some feel-good academic exercise; it is crucial to the ability of genuine majority rule in America, and it is urgently important to create platforms to bring both sides together for conversation."

How Americans can overcome these problems will be at the heart of a SXSWedu panel that will feature Rosen and Widener University President Julie Wollman. One solution Rosen intends to explore is a campaign to educate Americans on the intricacies of the U.S. Constitution – the interpretation of which has led to some of the nation's most divisive debates. To aid in that effort, the National Constitution Center has created the Interactive Constitution, an online resource which brings together constitutional scholars selected by the American Constitution Society and the Fed­eralist Society – the nation's most prominent liberal and conservative constitutional law groups, respectively – to discuss the document's history and offer interpretations of its 80 clauses. Rosen said of the resource, "It doesn't shy away from areas of disagreement, and it is inspiring to see that top constitutional scholars in America were able to identify 1,000 words of agreement about the most controversial provisions of the Constitution."

Whether or not this political polarization can be ended remains to be seen. Rosen's mission to educate the citizenry on what the document they are arguing about actually means, however, serves as a step in the right direction. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, "Knowledge is essential to understanding; and understanding should precede judging." If Americans can get to that point, they may begin to get along.

SXSWedu's Political Power

What Do the Polls Say About Education & Politics?
Mon., March 5, noon, Hilton Salon B.
Public polling remains one of the most valuable tools in understanding what Americans think of policy and politics. Quantitative research analyst Matt Price explains how to interpret results from polls.

Show Me Democracy
Tue., March 6, 1:30pm, ACC Room 15.
New documentary follows several young activists who emerged in the wake of the uprising in Ferguson, Mo. Q&A with director Dan Parris and two young activists follows the screening.

What Hath We Wrought?
Wed., March 7, 9:30am, ACC Ballroom D.
Microsoft's principal researcher Danah Boyd explores the power social media wields over young people, and how to counter the unintended consequences of that power.

American Creed
Wed., March 7, 11am, ACC Room 15.
Condoleezza Rice and David M. Kennedy explore what values and principles unite Americans in this new documentary.

Free Speech & Civil Dialogue Online & on Campus takes place Thu., March 8, 9:30am, Austin Convention Center Rm. 18ABC.

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