Social Media Paves One-Way Voter Roads

Barack Obama was not yet a United States Senator in the summer of 2004. But with one keynote address in Boston, home of that year’s Democratic National Convention, he became a household name and a symbol of bipartisan hope. “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America,” said the man who was voted the nation’s 44th President just over four years later. “There is a United States of America.”

Obama’s words did little to stop the bottoming trend in moderate politics. Congress is now the most partisan it has ever been. Lawmakers now vote with their respective parties roughly 90 percent of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly. And many of the Senate’s moderate voices, including Republican Olympia Snowe and Democrat Ben Nelson, will be leaving their government posts at year’s end.

The Internet has helped information flow—and become reinforced—more quickly than ever before. The distinction between the politicians and their constituents are less apparent today as a result. Politicians and typical voters can share their views equally with the world, one post at a time. But as extremist sentiment continues to plague our nation’s civic figureheads—and their online accounts—voters are following suit.

Partisan spars in Washington are as old as the city itself. Thomas Jefferson once called John Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams responded by calling Jefferson a “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

But partisanship under this presidency is of a different sort: Obama will be the first commander-in-chief to spend his entire White House tenure in the social media spotlight. The Internet has become a prime destination for many Americans looking for party-driven election news. Over half of American voters get most of their election news from the internet, according to a 2011 study from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.

The most popular political websites are those with partisan slants. Roughly 55 percent of those who participated in the same Pew survey feel that the Internet is catalyzing political partisanship. And a total of 34 percent deliberately read news content and commentary from sites that reinforce their own socio-economic opinions.

The process of taking stances on political issues is usually not a rational one. But Jerold Duquette, an associate professor of political science at Central Connecticut State University, believes that partisan media outlets are influencing their consumers nonetheless. He told me:

Many of the nationally known bloggers have become reliable messengers for political elites of various stripes. They hope to be influential with their friends and neighbors, but more as boosters of a clear perspective than as persuaders. They don’t want to change minds; they want to strengthen the convictions of the like-minded by attacking and denigrating their political opponents.

But politics has become more than a series of policy arguments. In an age when tweets from presidential candidates and their next-door neighbors each cover the same number of pixels, views of government have become intertwined  with everyday life events. Recreational activities—book clubs, dating services, and luxury cruises—that once gathered holders of differing viewpoints are now being split by the political affiliations of their participants.

More information is electronically available than ever before, and those who use the Internet are increasingly desperate to mark their own presence within it. Rick Shenkman, an associate professor of history at George Mason University and publisher of the school’s History News Network, told me:

Issues have to be simplified to break through. Americans don’t have patience for complicated messages. An activist or group that adopts simple messaging that’s loud and maybe even obnoxious has a chance of influencing public opinion.

Washington and social media have reinforced these partisan attitudes. Eli Pariser, MoveOn.org board president and author of the 2011 book The Filter Bubble, conducted a Facebook experiment in which he deliberately “friended” politically conservative users. But when he didn’t click on their posts as often as those of his fellow liberals, the right-leaning posts mostly disappeared from his news feed. He told The New York Times in 2011:

People love the idea of having their feelings affirmed. If you can provide that warm, comfortable sense without tipping your hand that your algorithm is pandering to people, then all the better.

Even online institutions like Google do little to encourage a diversity of opinions. Google—and others like it—track the words users type into its search box, prioritizing results that web surfers want to see over content that conflicts with their own views. Voters who use the Internet are therefore more likely to encounter posts that remind them why they voted for or against a certain candidate than they are to come across pieces of information that might encourage them to change their minds. Politicians can spread mistruths and engage in unethical behavior, while the individuals who voted for these public officials can go extensive periods of time without having the means to question them.

Compromise has become a rare feat in American politics. Niche markets have deprioritized goals of persuasion, from the wings of Capitol Hill to the domain addresses of the Silicon Valley. Politicians and social media users spend little time inquiring about opposing political stances for fear that friends and colleagues will feel betrayed or ignored.

Partisanship is inevitable in today’s world of customization. Shenkman added that awareness of social media tactics is the key to accountability:

What this country needs is the development of critical thinking tools so that voters can better evaluate what they hear in the media. We need to understand our own biases as well as the media’s.

Senator Barry Goldwater did not live to witness the invention of Twitter and Facebook. But when he represented the Republican Party in the 1964 Presidential Election, heencouraged voters to criticize political imbalance:

This government is your government. It is not the property of the elected few. We consent to be governed. We do not elect to be ruled. But if your interest as an American citizen is confined to the tuning of a television set, the scanning of an editorial or column, without careful study of the issues and the answers offered — then it may well turn out that some day your actions will indeed result in electing to be ruled.

Goldwater’s warning is even more salient today. The Internet, like each of today’s political parties, is filled with varied opinions. The potential to strengthen dissent is enormous. But arguments can neither be won, nor understood, without critically examining the origins of information.

Jesse Jr’s Future Will Keep Long-Term Stride

Politics has never been far behind for Jesse Jackson, Jr. He shadowed his father’s civil rights and presidential campaigns as a young adult. He spent his 21st birthday in a Washington D.C. jail cell after protesting apartheid at the South African Embassy. And when Nelson Mandela ended his 27-year prison term, he shared a Cape Town stage with the future South African president. By the time he was thirty, in 1995, “Junior” — as staffers affectionately call him — began serving Chicago’s South Side in Congress. And just two years later, in 1997, People magazine declared him America’s sexiest politician.

Jackson’s Congressional accomplishments are prolific. His attendance as a legislator was near perfect; he has even been caught sprinting to Capitol Hill in an effort to cast votes before ballots closed. He has secured nearly a billion dollars for projects in his lower-class district. And he has yet to lose that civil rights ethic, pushing for constitutional amendments in voting reform, healthcare, and housing. Supporters have fantasized about U.S. Senate and Chicago mayoral runs, convinced that Jackson could handle the tasks.

But the 47-year-old, who has been mysteriously absent from his post since June 10, revealed late Wednesday that he has been suffering from a “mood disorder” and is receiving treatment at an undisclosed inpatient rehabilitation facility. He and his associates expect him to recover and return to office by autumn.

Depression and mental illness have long histories in American politics, from the solitary late nights in offices to the glory of electoral stages. But medicine and clinical psychologyhave lessened the social stigmas of these conditions, even in Washington. The act of acquiring psychotherapy and prescription antidepressants is more nationally widespread than ever before. The Internet has allowed anybody with a computer to learn about mental disorders in vast ways. With the right information, minds can be managed. And if elected officials like Jesse Jackson, Jr. reveal similar personal conditions, the public trust will endure.

The possibility that Jackson is suffering from a kind of mood disorder will not threaten his political future. But since he has not depicted his situation explicitly enough, much information has yet to be uncovered. Staffers did not announce his absence until three weeks after his departure. The physician who examined him has not been publicly identified. And nobody suffers from a breakdown without a condition or event to back it up. The longer Jackson fails to discuss the specifics of his own physiological state, the less favorably those who have engaged in that process will perceive him.

This is not the first time Jackson has been involved with potential scandal. After Barack Obama was forced to vacate his Senate seat following a victorious 2008 presidential race, then-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich began searching for his successor. Blagojevich began serving his 14-year prison sentence in March after being found guilty of committing 18 acts of corruption, including an attempt to sell the position to the highest bidder. The House Ethics Committee is still investigating allegations that Jackson raised money and used Congressional staff to vie for the seat. Jackson maintains his innocence and has vowed to comply with committee protocol.

Senator Dick Durbin, Illinois’s most senior lawmaker, believes that politicians have just as much right to exercise the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which maintains an individual’s right to keep details regarding his or her treatment private, as anyone else in America. But if Jackson is hiding a scandal or corrupt practice of any kind, his seamless reputation on the Congressional left will dwindle. Durbin released a statement Wednesday, supporting Jackson’s recovery but warning of secrecy’s perils.

“I want him to get well, he’s got a beautiful young family and I want him to get well and be home with them,” Durbin wrote. “But when we accept this responsibility in public life, we have a burden to be more open about our private lives than most people.

The details behind Jackson’s mood disorder will not be vague for long. Either he or one of his insiders will eventually reveal his condition. And the day his struggle is made public, the veteran Congressman will not be a lone case in political science and mental health textbooks. Almost immediately after Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton was selected to become 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern’s vice presidential running mate, the media received numerous tips stating his history of psychiatric hospitalization and electroconvulsive therapy. He wound up serving only 18 days on the White House ticket, a currently unsurpassed record.

Jennifer Duffy from the Cook Political Report told The Washington Post in 2006 that, politicians with mental health issues face much less risk for political shunning these days.

“Depression is one of these issues that can be dealt with,” Duffy said. “You have to sort of figure it out, the whys and the treatment, and then you can be okay… I don’t think it disqualifies him from future public office, if that’s what he wants.

The past 20 years signify the same exact message. New York Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, former U.S. Secretary of the Department of Puerto Rican Community Affairs, held a 1992 press conference in which she admitted attempting suicide a year prior. She also confessed to suffering bouts with depression, prescription drug abuse, and alcoholism, but she reassured constituents professional counseling had allowed her “a whole new outlook on life.” She was elected to Congress with 77 percent of the votes later that year.

Patrick Kennedy, a Representative from Rhode Island, revealed his fight with bipolar depression in 2006. But 67 percent of his district’s voters re-elected him into office.

Regardless of what develops out of Jackson’s mystery, he has little reason to worry. His district is one of the nation’s most consistently Democratic. Even if a larger scandal is uncovered, he has time for it to cool down. He does not face another re-election until 2014. And once that hurdle—if it even becomes one—passes, opportunities to run for Senate, governor, or any other office, will outlive the stigma.

NAACP Gave Romney What He Wanted

Before Mitt Romney uttered a single word Wednesday at the NAACP Annual Convention in Houston, the man seeking to unseat the nation’s first African-American president anticipated jeering. His audience didn’t disappoint, booing him the loudest after the Massachusetts Republican promised to repeal the intentionally worded “Obamacare.” Most liberal onlookers could — and did — quickly deem the speech a failure. And that is exactly why his campaign sees his speech as a success.

“I am going to give the same message to the NAACP that I give across the country, which is that Obamacare is killing jobs,” Romney told organization members from the podium. “And if jobs is the priority, then we’re going to have to replace it with something that actually holds down healthcare costs, as opposed to causing more spending for the government and more spending for American families.”

Prolonged boos followed Romney’s statement, just as he had expected. But with presidential polls indicating a statistical tie, all of November’s votes will count. He took the stage, first and foremost, to appeal to moderates who can provide him leverage. If even a slight percentage of minorities perceive Romney as an independent leader, the Republican could win the swing state advantage.

Avis Jones-DeWeever, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women, told ABC News that Romney followed through with his convention goal and pleased his conservative base in the process.

“That was like a victory lap on Fox News,” said Jones-DeWeever. “That was exactly what he went there intending to do.”

NAACP chairman Benjamin Todd Jealous issued a statement Wednesday in which he called Romney’s social and economic positions “antithetical” to the group’s interests:

“His criticism of the Affordable Care Act – legislation that will improve access to quality health care for millions – signals his fundamental misunderstanding of the needs of many African Americans,” the statement read.

Romney recognizes that African-Americans share a long history of voting Democrat, and that will likely not change. That trend dates back to 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Since then, no Republican presidential candidate has received more than 30 percent of the African-American vote. And four years ago, the demographic widened that partisan edge. More than 96 percent of African-American voters selected Barack Obama over John McCain in the general election. So far this year, they are supporting Barack Obama with even higher margins. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll displayed a 92-to-6 lead between the incumbent and Romney. The Republican candidate is aware that the Wednesday speech to the nation’s oldest civil rights organization will gain him little-to-no November ground. So, he figured he would stage a captivating show in order to seem less calculating.

The White House has spent much time delivering personal narratives about recent hurdles in race relations. In the days after Barack Obama learned about Trayvon Martin’s death, he remarked that if he had a son, he would look like the 17-year-old. Wednesday was Romney’s turn at storytelling.

Mitt’s father, late Michigan governor George Romney, ran for President in 1968, the year civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Racial tensions were dense at the time, but the senior Romney developed a long career out of improving relations between White and African-Americans, even before that failed White House bid. This year’s Republican presidential candidate reflected on his father’s racial legacy to those in attendance on Wednesday.

“It wasn’t just that my Dad helped write the civil rights provision for the Michigan Constitution, though he did,” Romney said. “It wasn’t just that he helped create Michigan’s first civil rights commission, or that as governor he marched for civil rights in Detroit – though he did those things, too. More than these public acts, it was the kind of man he was, and the way he dealt with every person, black or white. He was a man of the fairest instincts, and a man of faith who knew that every person was a child of God.”

Romney knew that speaking about his father’s social policies would be the most defensible NAACP convention move. According to the most recent national jobs report, over 14 percent of African-Americans were unemployed in June, compared to just over eight percent of the general population. And many African-American families bring homelower median incomes than those in other racial demographics. The liberal base of the NAACP has largely found Romney’s background—as a wealthy equity businessman and former governor—out of touch with its organization’s message. Romney eliminated the Massachusetts office of affirmative action during his gubernatorial tenure, from 2003 to 2007. He also failed to oversee the completion of various urban public works projectsand minimally reinforced a 2001 law against police-based racial profiling.

Romney’s support for voter ID laws was barely touched during the speech. Such a decision might have been ignored in other states. But in Texas, the issue cannot be ignored. The state’s voter ID law is being challenged this week in a Washington federal court. Civil rights activists advocate that millions of minority voters are at risk of having their political picks ignored if that law is sustained.

Indiana voter Homer Cobb was in Wednesday’s crowd but did not boo Romney. He still understood why those around him did.

“He’s never been to a hospital where the first thing that they ask if do you have insurance,” said Cobb. “He’s never had to meet that.”

The Republican Party was once the party of Jackie Robinson, the African-American athlete who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. Former NAACP President Benjamin Hooks was a White House staffer during the Reagan years. And Michael Steele was the Republican National Committee’s first black chairman, serving from 2009 to 2011. Even he expressed a deep frustration with Republicans for limiting and calculating efforts to further integrate party appeal.

“It’s always five months before the presidential election that they’re concerned with getting the black vote — but what about the three years in between?” Steele told CBS News. “If the party is serious about not becoming irrelevant by 2016, then get off your ass and engage the people.”

What’s The Big F’in Deal With Profanity In Politics?

If the politics of “We the People” could be personified, angry soccer moms would likely shove a bar of soap in its mouth.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has built his political career on verbal brashness. When Hurricane Irene swept into the state last year, he warned fellow New Jerseyans to “get the hell off the beach.” And last week, the man widely considered a finalist in Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate search shouted at one of his constituents outside a Jersey Shore ice cream stand. The unidentified man had approached the governor and criticized his recent decision to expand public funding for charter schools. The move has upset education advocates who hoped that the state would invest the money in struggling public schools. Christie clutched his ice cream cone and advanced toward the man.

“You’re a real big shot shooting your mouth off!” Christie shouted at the constituent, who subsequently left the scene.

“Keep walking,” Christie added.

Politicians often have press secretaries, speechwriters, and advisers to maintain public relations. But moments after sharing some corny, cheesy puns at Coney Island’s annual 4th of July Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked his aides frankly, “Who wrote this shit?”

Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker believes that in the age of HBO and uncensored Internet, politicians are using profanity to appear more in touch with the demotic.

“Because they want to appear to be in tune with popular culture, politicians feel free to express themselves in profane ways,” Baker told the Associated Press late last week. “I honestly do believe that, in aping the coarseness of popular culture, people in public life are really dragging us into a discourse of fang and claw.”

American politics used to be a clean sport, according to Baker. But history proves that’s hardly the case. John Nance Garner, who served as vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt, once remarked, “The vice presidency isn’t worth a pitcher of warm piss.”

Lyndon B. Johnson had a similar way with words. The Texan who served in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives once analogized the two chambers to “the difference between a chicken salad and chicken shit.” And while debating J. Edgar Hoover’s future as FBI chief, he ultimately ruled against firing him, adding that “it’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.”

Who knows what came out of Thomas Jefferson’s mouth after the Second Continental Congress revised the Declaration of Independence? Audio recording devices weren’t around, and hot mics weren’t a problem. But most of today’s conversations, both those within and outside of the political world, are being recorded in ever-increasing detail.

That pattern began during the Richard Nixon administration. In a taped conference with two presidential aides, the man popularly known as Tricky Dick called Mexicans “dishonest,” said that black people lived like “a bunch of dogs,” and that San Francisco was a city of “fags” and “decorators.”

The 21st-century Beltway is also no stranger to profane outbursts. During George W. Bush’s 2000 election campaign, the future president was recorded calling New York Times reporter Adam Clymer a “major-league asshole.” In 2004, former Vice President Dick Cheney told Senator Patrick Leahy to “fuck yourself” after the two had passed by each other on Capitol Hill. And during Massachusetts Senator John Kerry’s 2004 White House bid, the Democrat regretted his decision to vote for the Iraq War. He told Rolling Stone magazine, “Did I expect George Bush to fuck it up as badly as he did? I don’t think anybody did.”

Perhaps the Obama administration’s saltiest notable is Vice President Joe Biden. After the President signed his healthcare-reform bill into law in 2009, Biden whispered to him, “This is a big fucking deal.”

McKay Hatch, a California teenager who founded a “No Cussing Club,” subsequently sent a “cuss jar” to the White House, hoping that Biden and the rest of Obama’s cabinet would clean up their commentary.

“Words have a lot of power,” Hatch told CBS News in 2010. “And that was one word that obviously offends people and people don’t like.”

Hatch and his fellow club members would likely side with John Wilkes, an 18th-century politician whose language was colorful, but rarely profane. Wilkes once participated in a verbal duel with insults with John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich:

Montagu: Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox.

Wilkes: That, sir, depends on whether I first embrace your Lordship’s principles or your Lordship’s mistresses.

Humor can remind an officeholder’s constituents that politics is, above all, human. Profanity should not come out of an politician’s mouth every other second, but when used with touches of reason and good timing, it can emphasize a message. In the words of esteemed humorist Mark Twain:

Let us swear while we may, for in Heaven it will not be allowed.