The Political Divide
Are our emotions preventing us from discussing the issues that impact us most?
By Maureen Harmon
Rick Foglesong, professor of political science, has absolutely no data to back up his latest political observation. But he’s pretty sure there aren’t as many political lawn signs popping up in Florida as there were four years ago. And he’s certain that fewer and fewer of his students want to engage in political discourse in the classroom. His theory? People are more closeted these days because talking politics with neighbors or roommates who aren’t voting your party line can quickly get you uninvited to the holiday potluck or may draw a permanent line down the dorm-room floor.
But online, it’s a different story. On Facebook, voters repost news stories that tout the strengths of one candidate or blast the opposition. They take to Twitter during the debate, cheering on zingers and encouraging their candidate to go for the jugular as if they were watching Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier duke it out in the ring.
Rollins saw the online battle firsthand last July when it announced that President Obama would make an appearance at the College. Within 10 minutes of a Facebook post, the Rollins page received its first comment, and the online debate that ensued ranged from excitement to frustration to sheer anger. “It is unfortunate that Rollins would allow such a president to speak at their learning institution,” wrote one alumnus. The next day, when Rollins released details about ticketing, it took only two minutes for a graduate to chime in: “I just puked in my mouth.”
By August 2, the day of Obama’s visit, the back and forth had gotten much uglier. “Adds to our University’s resume of HAMAS Terrorists speaking on campus. One in the same,” wrote commenter X. To which another commenter responded: “[Commenter X]’s the Rollins’ chapter president of Bigots R Us.” Some graduates and students blamed Rollins for taking a political stance by footing the bill for Obama’s speech. (It didn’t, by the way. The Obama campaign rented the Alfond Sports Center on its own dime and managed ticket distribution.) When one gentleman corrected the spelling of another on LinkedIn, he was quickly denounced when the intended recipient of that message dug up the proofreader’s 4-year-old DUI arrest. “I do not know which impeaches your credibility more,” he wrote. “Having a criminal record, or being a Democrat.”
This isn’t the first time political conversations around the country have reached a boiling point. Just think about what Abraham Lincoln had to deal with regarding the Civil War. Or Truman with the atomic bomb. And let’s not forget the aftermath of the Gore-Bush election. Even so, Rollins experts seem to agree: The character of political discourse has deteriorated over the last 20 to 25 years. The level of anger seems to have escalated and the chasm between the left and the right is continually expanding.
“It’s like the whole nation is on a surfboard and we’re competing against our brothers and sisters,” says Ted Gournelos, assistant professor of critical media and cultural studies, “rather than watching the sharks that are coming for us.”
So why can’t we all just get along?