Sunday, October 11, 2009

Negative Politics not a Problem?

An analysis in today's Fort Worth Star-Telegram asks whether what is thought to be an increasingly virulent talk radio environment runs the risk of inciting people to violence. While the article focuses on talk radio, others express similar concerns about bloggers.

Jon Meacham's recent biography of Andrew Jackson provides a helpful reminder that over-the-top negativity in politics is nothing new. In the election of 1828, General Jackson's opponents alleged (accurately, it seems) that his 30 year marriage to Rachel involved bigamy, and even more hostile opponents alleged that his mother, who had been dead for 40 years, was a "whore." Jackson in justified bitterness believed that the attacks were responsible for the death of his wife. Following the election, internecine conflicts related to the character of the wife of his Secretary of War ultimately had a significant impact on the future of presidential politics.

None of this is to justify such nastiness, but the election of 1828 (and many others that could be cited) provides a helpful reminder that things may not be any worse than they have always been. While The Oracle has sometimes complained that the mindless negativity of modern campaigns probably keeps many highly qualified candidates from running, that has been true throughout American history, at least since the founding generation. Indeed, outside of that generation, with the exception of those who had been successful as military leaders, there really have not been that many Americans of outstanding achievement in their fields who have run for the presidency.

Modern technology means that many people get a wider hearing than they otherwise would, and many of those really are not worth listening to. However, free speech is necessarily messy speech -- no First Amendment is required for speech that no one considers disagreeable. Fears as to the result of such speech are likely greatly exaggerated.

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