By: Jacob Ellis, Co-Director of Economic Policy
The phrase “politics as normal” no longer applies to our current political climate. Polítical polarization, cable television, and the internet have altered the political landscape. Historically in America, civil discourse has meant politely disagreeing with one’s opposition on an issue while working together to achieve compromise. In the age of the 24 hour news cycle, there is a new hyper-partisan landscape that shifts rapidly. The development of cable news channels has altered the mindset of the American electorate and their politicians, brainwashing them in favor of more personal, immediate, and direct attacks. With the invention of social media platforms, the world is simultaneously more connected and more divided than ever before. The voices of those with more extreme beliefs are being amplified and broadcast to all. Now, lawmakers and candidates alike can bypass traditional media outlets, and directly interact with the public. Before this era, nearly all civil discourse took the form of localized speeches, protests and public debates. Today’s politics have become simultaneously more personal and direct and yet shared by millions instantly. Online forums and perceived anonymity allow individuals to promote more inflammatory and polarized opinions, adding a less civil dimension to the political landscape. Fringe media outlets and less factual reporting cater directly to this audience, providing the type of message and news coverage they prefer to hear. This echo chamber of beliefs encourages groupthink and confirmation bias, promoting more division and eroding mutual respect and civility. Recently, this opinion divide has further widened. Cooperation and agreement between the two parties is a rarity in all levels of government and civil discourse. Our ongoing public debates are no longer substantive discussions but rather superficial, scripted attacks, broadcast more for publicity in the name of a higher party loyalty.
In Virginia alone, there have been several highly publicized marches for fringe and extremist groups, aiming to achieve a more prominent role in Virginia Politics, such as the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville and “VDCL Gun lobby day” march on the Capitol’s front steps. These normally reclusive groups have their disagreements over policy online but are leaving digital form to spar in person. This carried over to the 2020 Legislative Session where civility was an afterthought, and civil discourse reached a new low.
The clock struck noon, the sound of a gavel ripped through the noisy air. The Lieutenant Governor commanded all of the senators to take their places. Knowing what was about to commence, the Lieutenant Governor begrudgingly progressed with the morning hour formalities, while the Senators milled around the chamber, circling like sharks in the vast ocean. The clerk then announces the day's main event, SB 277, a bill that would create a tax deduction for longer distance commuters. In seconds, the usually docile, civil Senate became a feeding frenzy. The mask of civility came off, and true personalities were revealed.
In the historic chamber, rural Virginia senators bicker with others from suburban and urban areas. Compromise was perceived to be impossible. The normally cordial rural-urban-suburban divide in the senate was no more. A senior senator rises, and turns the focus of the attack to the Presiding officer, admonishing his handling of the debate so far. The Senate stops in complete disbelief. The Lieutenant Governor and the senior Senator viciously argue, even debating the merits of the other being in their respective position. This was no ordinary policy debate; this was a personal vendetta on full display. The appearance of civility was thrown to the wayside. The clerk demands that the Lieutenant Governor recess the deliberative body to quash remaining emotions between the Presiding Officer, the senior senator and his three closest allies. Bewilderment, confusion, curiosity and anger brew amongst the 36 remaining senators. When the five emerge from a conference room, the Senate returns to “politics as normal,” and civil discourse returns as policy debates continue the rest of the day without personal attacks.
The highly desired “Virginia Way” of compromise, bipartisanship, and collegiality between legislators is dying. In Virginia, as with governments across this nation and the world, civil discourse is now an issue of who can be more personal and partisan. For the leaders of tomorrow, this is a horrific example, fostering an environment of distance and polarization. While Robert Frost argued that “nothing gold can stay,” I believe that it is possible that Virginian politics can return to the gold standard of normalcy in politics, for the sake of the future leaders and future issues. Civility, trust and respect in politics can return when discourse remains solely ideological and not personal. In our nation’s darkest times, such as trying disasters, Americans seek civility and cooperation. In these moments of unity, the hope of politics returning to normal thrives, and stands as a testament to move society forward, and onward.