This has been an interesting election season for me, media-wise. I don't watch TV, don't listen to much radio, and don't have a landline phone - so most of the ways that the Presidential campaigns have of trying to reach me, the ever-elusive "swing state voter", don't work. However much money they're spending is wasted on me, and probably some other people like me.
What I do see, however, is Facebook. This exposes me to two different streams of political communication: the paid ads on the side and the conversation & posting of people on my Friends list.
The paid ads go mostly unnoticed - I suspect that most FB users have long since learned to pay no attention to that part of the screen. Interesting bit of evidence - my employer decided to run a trial campaign of FB ads recently (they turn out to be surprisingly cheap). We got almost no response. Our other internet marketing tactic, buying ads on Google & Bing, was FAR more effective. I'm sorry for owners of FB stock, but their sidebar ads just aren't producing much.
So the official campaign ads I see on FB are pretty much wasted. Far more noticeable (also intrusive and frequently annoying) are the political posts from FB Friends. These appear right smack in the middle, intermixed with stuff I actually care about, so I have to pay some attention. Plus, to be fair, some of them are funny - not as many as their posters think, but some really are.
The problem is that, at least in my limited experience, the FB political conversation is much like the stream of campaign ads, but more so. Whereas about 60% of all campaign ads (on both sides) are negative, this seems to rise to 80% or 90% among the FB crowd. And most of it isn't merely negative - it's snarky, caustic, and hyperbolic to the point of absurdity.
I am continually warned that if Romney is elected, we will all become slaves to the mega-corporations, or that if Obama is elected we will turn into North Korea overnight. I am informed on a daily basis that all Democrats/Republicans are idiots/heartless bastards/evil/damned to hell. It would be funny if the feelings behind these sentiments weren't sincere much of the time.
Lots of smart people have made the sensible and obvious observations about this kind of "discourse". It convinces nobody, especially independents or people who might be persuadable. It only makes those propagating it look like petulant kindergartners. It contributes to the broader breakdown of social capital in our communities by pitting people against each other over differences that matter far less than we think they do. All of this is true, and it bears repeating.
But what I find bothers me most about this kind of political rage is not its irrationality. It is the effect that it has on me, and I suspect on a lot of other people. Rage-induced screaming and sarcastic attack don't just fail to convince; they disturb the peace. They make it evident that there are people who care more about getting things "their way" or winning for "their team" than they do for their relationships with real people that make up the communities we live in - either virtual or real.
Plenty of folks have offered simple advice: turn it off. De-Friend those FB people who are spewing toxic waste. Don't participate. I even had one FB friend, a strong partisan of one side, make a generic offer on FB - people can de-Friend her and she won't get offended. And, in truth, this does solve the immediate problem, insofar as I don't have to look at negative political sewage anymore.
But this "solution" misses the point. If a bunch of angry folks walk into a room and start shouting at each other, and then suggest to those who don't want to shout that they can always just leave, what does this accomplish? It drives away all the voices who want to talk about something else - about common community values, or a shared vision of the future, or peace as a virtue within the community. It cedes the room to the bullies. And that's what bothers me most.
In a certain sense, we have brought this on ourselves. Some among us have bought the lies about every election being "the most important election in my lifetime" and the myth that the choice of a single person makes the difference between prosperity and happiness on the one hand and 1000 years of darkness on the other. And the rest of us, for lack of a better alternative, let them. We don't know what to do when the screamers make things intolerable, so we withdraw into our quiet corners.
Screaming - like violence - is inherently escalatory. That's why every election cycle is a constantly-building crescendo of angry insanity, and why each new cycle is a little louder, nastier, and more rhetorically violent than the last. All of this leaves fewer and fewer spaces for people who care about other things.
As a sidebar comment, it is no small irony that many of the screamers do so in the name of God and of the Christian Church. I'm not a very good theologian, but I'm pretty sure that the priority at the heart of the Christian gospel is relationships. Love one another, we were told. There are apparently folks who think that The Great Commandment can be set aside for convenience, or when the other political party is winning.
To the general problem of screamers taking over the landscape, I don't have any solutions or even suggestions. Violence, rhetorical or physical, is a trump card - it forces everyone else to either play the same game or withdraw. The best hope, I suppose, is that those of us who don't want to play the game might find each other and carve out our own spaces where we can live in peace and try to build real communities.