As the Democratic and Republican parties prepare for the 2012 presidential elections, media pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle are leveling the usual loaded sound bites and emotionally charged buzzwords at one another in an effort to make headlines. With the current partisan atmosphere in Washington and recent congressional impasse over the debt deal, this habit of labeling politicians’ platforms, positions, and proposals is more destructive to our political discourse than ever.
From Fox News anchor Eric Bolling’s labeling the EPA “job terrorists” to MSNBC host Chris Matthews’ calling the GOP the “Wahhabis of American government,” there’s no shortage of examples of negative political labeling in the mainstream media. Our highest-ranking politicians are also guilty of this name-calling: Joe Biden made headlines when he likened the Tea Party to “terrorists” in the fight over the nation’s debt deal; meanwhile, one-time GOP presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee sparked controversy earlier this year by repeatedly raising questions and doubts about President Barack Obama’s birth place.
This worrisome trend of distracting and empty labeling came to a height during the debate surrounding healthcare reform. Over the course of 2010, Congress debated President Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, which aims to make healthcare more affordable by cutting down on fraud by private insurance companies and increasing the variety of healthcare services and options available to Americans.
The proposal spurred a great deal of heated discussion, and rightfully so, given its significant changes to our existing healthcare system. But while disagreement over the bill’s core goals is constructive, productive, and merited, politicians and the media on both sides distracted from the quality of public debate by using polarizing labels.
On the conservative side, politicians like former RNC Chair Michael Steele and pundits like Rush Limbaugh repeatedly claimed that the bill would lead the country down the road of “socialism.” For many Americans, socialism paints a grim picture of the former Soviet Union and is reminiscent of communism. Many GOP leaders took advantage of these feelings by employing terms like “socialized-medicine” to provoke severe opposition to Obama’s bill.
Equating the bill to socialism was both incorrect and distracting. Socialism refers to the eradication of privatization in favor of government ownership of all means of production and distribution. While Obama’s bill allows the government to enter into an exchange with private companies in order to reduce costs, this is a far cry from government ownership and socialist leanings. Whether you endorse the Affordable Care Act or not, using this kind of language to describe it made bi-partisan cooperation nearly impossible and harmed the quality of debate.
Liberals were no less guilty during the healthcare debate. Take the example of Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who earlier this year likened Republicans who opposed the bill to modern-day Nazis. Of course, there is no comparison to the negative GOP propaganda opposing healthcare reform to Nazi propaganda that led to the Holocaust. Cohen diverted attention away from real policy discussion over the bill by egregiously misrepresenting Republicans with such a harmful label.
Several factors underline why political labeling has become a common tool employed by the media and politicians. Since our news cycle runs 24/7 and the internet provides instant access to all world updates, political labeling serves as an attention-grabber, helping media outlets snag extra time in the spotlight and outshine competition. Politicians who use these labels have tunnel-vision, unable to recognize the merits of opposing arguments – either because they are too wedded to their viewpoints or too willing to score political points at the expense of real debate.
Whatever the reason, the media’s continuous sensationalizing of buzzwords and political sound bites, often taken out of context, does little to repair the soaring level of partisanship in Washington. Moving forward, the media and politicians must cut back on the use of labels as instruments to garner support for themselves or undermine their opponent, and instead narrow the focus of their opposition to policy and ideas. Instead of highlighting political labels to spark controversy, the media should focus more on encouraging and moderating healthy and truthful political debate.
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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared at No Labels, a new PolicyMic partner.