First off, I don’t think that political discourse has “reached a new low”. People have short memories — it’s always been this bad. Still it’s important to take a step back once in a while in our battles and take stock of what’s OK and what’s not. That is, unless you don’t care who gets hurt and what relationships are injured.
Political discourse is an attempt to find the way forward and to understand each other, even if you disagree with each other. Disagreeing about, say, what the most appropriate tax rate is or if we should extended unemployment benefits past a year is in the realm of polite political discourse. The statements of belief open up an opportunity to explain positions and to understand each other. Who knows? Maybe with a cogent enough argument, an agreement can be reached. This is what a healthy democracy is all about. People that take disagreement with their political positions as personal attacks are, for the most part, babies.
There’s another kind of discourse — an uglier one. It’s the personal attack. The ad hominem attack. The ones fully intended to belittle and destroy, and not to win over. I can’t say whether or not one side of the political spectrum has a monopoly on this sort of behavior. I do know, that as someone on the Right, I notice the attacks from the Left, so that’s what examples I’ll use. The classic one is “X is stupid!” As any good card carrying member of the Left knows, the combined IQ points of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin are barely above the moss growing on my back patio. It’s obvious! they would say. The same type of behavior is evident when referring to some figure as “crazy”.
Here’s the problem with that sort of attack, and is the point of this post: it not only attacks the political figure, but personally attacks those people that respect and look up to them. Let’s say Joe really respects Senator Fred. Sally comes along and says, “Senator Fred’s a moron! Boy, there must be some corporate group controlling him, because he’s way too dumb!” Essentially, Sally called Joe an idiot, too, right? Why would you look up to a moron? You must be dumb, too.
Now, if you don’t want to have a respectful, intelligent conversation, and want to strain relationships in the process, it’s a free country. There’s no law against this sort of thing, and it’s certainly effective at winning ideological wars. It’s right out of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, a playbook for the Left, and it’s there because it works. Out of Wikipedia:
According to Alinsky, the main job of the organizer is to bait an opponent into reacting. “The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength.
Out of the book itself:
RULE 5: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” There is no defense. It’s irrational. It’s infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions.
RULE 12: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.
This sort of behavior was fine with Alinsky. He’s the type that if you don’t agree with his basic political position, you’re the enemy and are beneath contempt. If he burned some bridges, that’s OK — he’s not trying to make friends here. He’s in a war. If you desire to either initiate or pass along these attacks, just know what you’re doing.