The Problem with our Public Discourse

This political season has become especially emotion-driven. That may be understandable for the general public, for whom politics is neither a passion nor a preoccupation, but it is another matter when our “elite” who shape public opinion and whom we expect to elevate public discourse promote non-thinking.

Consider three examples.

First is a leading editorialist who excoriated various Republicans for their support of Donald Trump, whom the author labels a “dangerous fascist:”

I am talking, for example, about Sen. Marco Rubio, who in the primary called Trump an "erratic individual" who must not be trusted with nuclear weapons -- and then endorsed him for president.

I am talking about Sen. Ted Cruz, who called Trump a "pathological liar" and "utterly amoral" -- and then endorsed him for president, even though Trump never apologized for threatening to "spill the beans" on Cruz's wife and suggesting Cruz's father was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Most of all, I'm talking about House Speaker Paul Ryan, a man whose pained, blue eyes suggest he desperately wants to cry for help. He's a man who runs around the country pathetically trying to pretend that Trump does not exist and that the key issue is his congressional caucus' "Better Way" agenda. And he's a man who, of his own free will, seeks to help Donald Trump become president.

One would think that a writer critiquing his opponents would demonstrate familiarity with their thinking. But here not even a cursory understanding of it is demonstrated. After providing nothing but a few obscure quotes from the primary season, he smears Messrs. Ryan, Rubio, and Cruz by concluding that their support of Trump is proof that “they love their careers more than they love America.”

But those who have read the perspectives of Ryan, Rubio and Cruz know that they love America, but that they believe Secretary Clinton represents a greater threat to the country than Trump. Whether one agrees with their assessment is irrelevant.

Furthermore, empirical evidence contradicts the slander that they’re merely self-interested. Indeed, it’s likely that association with Mr. Trump has hurt Republicans in many congressional and Senate races. But acknowledging those facts requires an open mind and serious thinking about differing views, not emotion-driven close-mindedness masquerading as substance.

A second example is a major New York Times columnist, who similarly chastised Republicans for supporting Mr. Trump. After attacking them for failing the “character test,” the author similarly accused them of deliberately sacrificing the good of the country for doing “whatever it takes to guarantee their own political survival:”

They knew who he was all along, they knew that this was a man who should never, ever hold any kind of responsible position, let alone become president. Yet they refused to speak out against his candidacy as long as he had a chance of winning.

It is the writer’s prerogative to believe that Republicans are damaging the country, but as past is prologue, he provides not a modicum of evidence to support his personal attack. That Republicans desire the best for the country is apparently too unreasonable a concession for those driven by their feelings.  

A final example also comes from the pages of America’s most prestigious newspaper. The piece opens with the baldly matter-of-fact salvo, “Donald Trump is a domestic terrorist.” After several hundred words that both insult and delineate the sins of Donald Trump, the editorial provides nothing more than an emotionally cathartic, self-righteous exercise, vacuous of any engagement with Mr. Trump’s ideas. This from the outlet which purports to provide some of our most substantive commentary.

The point here is to defend neither Mr. Trump nor Republicans, as one need be neither a Trump supporter nor a Republican to recognize the trend among opinion-makers. But emotional vitriol from our punditry degrades our public dialogue. The consequence has been increasingly shallow thinking among the public, which explains routinely close-minded social media posts like this:

Donald Trump did not hijack the Republican Party. This is always who Republicans were. Their Southern Strategy of the 1960s (that still colors their strategy today) was specifically designed to stoke racial hostility and harm black people.

Most regrettable is not the ignorance demonstrated here of both the Republican platform and U.S. history, but that opinions like this are propagated by elites who demonize opponents rather than debate ideas.

We deserve better. It was Abraham Lincoln who warned that “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” One wonders how long a nation whose public discourse is guided by feelings can survive.

David formerly worked for the Heritage Foundation. His work has been published in the Federalist, Roll Call, the Daily Caller, and other outlets. He is currently a freelance writer who resides in the Twin Cities. Find more of his writing at