Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Politics as bloodsport turns ugly in America

As the US battles to come to grips with the attempted killing of Congresswoman Giffords, Jim Dee says it is symptomatic of the bitterness in politics nationwide

Regardless of what motivated 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner to go on a murderous shooting spree in Arizona on Saturday, his actions have clearly triggered a level of political soul searching not seen in America for years.

Sarah Palin has initially taken centre stage in the debate due to her infamous "crosshairs" targeting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. But the spotlight-seeking Alaskan isn't likely to be the only public figure whose words and deeds are scrutinised and debated in the coming days and weeks.

Right-wing shock-jocks such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, along with a host of pistol-packing Republican politicians who've profited politically from their fiery 'Bama-bashing rhetoric, are sure to take flak as well.

As evidenced by 2009's often shrill and rancorous town meetings over healthcare reform and the countless incendiary attack ads of the 2010 election, America appears to be a deeply, and increasingly, divided nation.

Tune in to any talk-radio station or politically themed TV show, and you'll be treated to a seemingly endless parade of politicians and pundits bickering and shouting at each other. That reality isn't exactly shocking in and of itself. Such barking delivers heads - top-shelf infotainment that sells tons of soap.

More and more, the infotainment circus has leeched into halls of Congress, where the concept of bipartisanship - particularly to conservative Republicans - is seen as anathema. And, in an increasingly vicious cycle, the resulting gridlock further poisons the political waters.

Stir in the ongoing economic malaise - and the inability to find quick fixes for problems like unemployment, immigration and soaring energy prices - and its easy to see why America's partisan political brew has become so bitter.

Of course, it is easy for Americans to develop a false nostalgia for a country that never really existed - a place where 'gentle' men settled their differences without bitterness and in a comradely atmosphere.

In reality, like countries the world over, America has seen its share of fractiousness, including a bloody civil war that took more than 600,000 lives and racial and ethnic division that have periodically triggered intense spasms of violence.

Yet, despite having overcome such national trials and tribulations, the level and intensity of rancour and hostility in public discourse is clearly on the rise.

In previous incarnations of Congress there were the like of Ted Kennedy, who was known for his ability to make alliances across the aisle, and counted among his close friends such prominent Republicans as Senators John McCain, Orrin Hatch, and speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner.

Those days seem well and truly over.

And while there are many contributing factors, one that has clearly exacerbated divisions is the lack of a commonly accepted narrative regarding current events. The 24/7 modern media juggernaut not only forms and shapes opinions to a degree never before seen in history, it also allows citizens to pick and choose the news they like. Unsettling facts that challenge cherished beliefs can be easily tuned-out or ignored.

During the 1960s - the most violent decade in recent US history - Americans from all parts of the political spectrum got their information from the same sources. Whatever the drawbacks of the "mainstream" media of the time, the TV and radio networks, along with the multitude of newspapers and magazines, all specialised in dry middle-of-the-road coverage that sought the image, if not the reality, of impartiality.

By contrast, today's opinion-driven media can inflame rather than inform. In theory, irrespective of whether Jared Lee Loughner's motives were political, his Arizona killings have the potential to alter the political climate in the US.

The outpouring of sympathy for Congresswoman Giffords and the other victims should give pause to many politicians and pundits who used the politics of division for political and financial gain.

In reality, if incidents like 1995's Oklahoma city bombing and even 9/11 are anything to go by, Saturday's shootings will only trigger a temporary truce among America's partisan brigades.

With the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives chomping at the bit to attack Democrats' recent healthcare reforms, and GOP campaigning for the 2012 presidential sweepstakes likely to kick-off next summer, the killings in Arizona will soon be eclipsed by a new wave of partisan wrangling.

And, at the end of the day, Sarah Palin will somehow emerge as a victim of the Arizona massacre.

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