Partisans have been quick in the wake of Saturday's shooting in Tucson, Ariz., to point fingers, and to point fingers at pointed fingers, alternately deploring and defending the heated political rhetoric that somehow seems tied — in perception if not reality — to the attempted assassination of a U.S. congresswoman.
When the blame subsides, we'll be left with a national discussion about where most of us draw the line between what's civil in politics and what's not, and what the consequences are of language that goes beyond that boundary. Does political rhetoric really matter — to average citizens, for our democracy, in the minds of unstable outliers?
Political scientists, at least, can help us set the stage for that dialog.
"This is not simply a concern of academics and certain pundits; many Americans are fretting about the way we do politics in America, and they're anxious to move in a new direction," said political scientist Daniel Shea. "So I think it's incumbent upon political scientists in particular to better understand the issue and to begin to chart solutions."
He reached that conclusion well before Saturday's shooting. Shea is one of the researchers behind the Allegheny College Survey of Civility and Compromise in American Politics, a study released last spring that probed average American opinion about the tone of modern politics. Some 95 percent of people said they believe civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy — the good news, in Shea's eyes. But nearly 50 percent said they believe civility has been on the decline since Barack Obama took office (and those paying close attention to politics were four times more likely to say this than those paying only moderate attention).
Most surprising are the responses when people were asked to define what should be out of bounds. "If you were able to create a rule book for civility in politics," subjects were asked, "which of the following would not be OK — would be, that is, against the rules?" Overwhelming majorities opposed belittling or insulting someone (89 percent), questioning someone's patriotism because they have a different opinion (73 percent), and personal attacks on someone they disagree with (87 percent).
Most Americans, in short, think entirely commonplace occurrences in politics today constitute political rhetoric that's beyond the pale. We're not even talking gun sights or "second-amendment remedies."
"These things are common in politics for a particular group of citizens, they are not common in politics for a vast majority of Americans," Shea said. "That's the key part of this whole question: Who's doing this, who's involved in this dramatic transformation? I call it the 'hot wings'" — the overcharged fringes of the political spectrum.
Nathan Kalmoe, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, has looked more specifically at violent political language as part of his dissertation. In a particularly salient recent paper, "Does Violent Political Rhetoric Fuel Support for Political Violence?" he tested the effects on citizens of the mildest form of the genre.
Some subjects read the text of a political ad that included phrases like "I will always fight for America's future" and "join me in this fight." Others read a subtly tweaked version of the same text: "I will always work for America's future ... join me in this effort."
Kalmoe then gauged support for political violence by asking subjects to rate their agreement with statements like "Sometimes the only way to stop bad government is with physical force," or "Some of the problems citizens have with government could be fixed with a few well-aimed bullets."
On the whole, those exposed to the more violent rhetoric were no more likely to support political violence. But then Kalmoe broke down the data. People predisposed to aggressive behavior in their everyday lives (as measured by a standard psychological screening) were in fact more responsive to the violent rhetoric. Low-aggression citizens reacted the opposite way.
Kalmoe borrows much of his theoretical framework from research that has linked violent media (from video games to movies to song lyrics) with violent attitudes and behavior. And he theorizes from that literature that if he were to ratchet up his mild political rhetoric — from, say, "fighting for your rights" to pointedly ambiguous calls to arms — the responses might ratchet up, too.
"There are other negative consequences that can come from violent rhetoric," Kalmoe said. "The study I've undertaken is evidence of that. It's not either 'violent rhetoric is leading to political violence,' or 'it has no negative consequences for democracy' — that's what the debate has seemingly devolved to, which isn't necessarily surprising. But I'm hoping that this work can show that there's a middle ground."
Some citizens are particularly susceptible — and on a level they may not consciously recognize — to even the mildest violent political language. But that's not to say those people (who are equally likely to be Democrat or Republican, Kalmoe adds) will act on support for political violence. Kalmoe's research can't address that. But it does, he says, point to the power of words.
"And it's important that leaders and citizens think carefully and reflect on the ways that they express themselves, because that has serious consequences for the kind of politics that we have, the kind of political environment that we have."