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Polarized Partisans Sling Jargon Like the Pros

By Ben Fritz (ben@spinsanity.org)
July 9, 2001
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By taking a close look at the anti-Tom Daschle campaign in the conservative media, Chris Mooney's article last week in the American Prospect Online touched off a spin-filled debate of its own. Brendan Nyhan has already dissected Rush Limbaugh's on-air response to Mooney, but perhaps even more intriguing are the responses of the people who visit partisan or ideological websites. The discussions of Mooney's article on these sites show how political jargon is not just used by politicians and pundits. It is absorbed and repeated by regular citizens, who adopt similar tactics to defend their views.

Jargon and group polarization

We are constantly working to document misleading and manipulative rhetoric at Spinsanity. Our analysis focuses on politicians, pundits, interest groups and political parties - but it is also valuable to examine how spin is picked up at the grassroots. Professional-style abusive rhetoric and character assassination have become commonplace among devoted party adherents.

Cass Sunstein has developed a theory that helps us understand these phenomena in his book, Republic.com, and in a free digital book called "Echo Chambers" (150 Kb PDF). According to Sunstein, one of social psychology's most robust findings is that like-minded groups discussing issues reach more extreme decisions than the individuals involved would have reached on their own. The Internet makes it much easier for people to get information from and interact with large groups of like-minded people, exacerbating this problem of "group polarization". One potential reflection of this is the abusive rhetoric and jargon found on partisan or ideological political web sites.

Free Republic posters deny secrets

A case in point is the discussion of Mooney's article on the conservative web site FreeRepublic.com.

Several posters there began by taking Mooney to task over his use of the word "secret" in the title of his article "The Secret War on Tom Daschle."A number of posts started off with lines like "What's the big secret" or "As you can see by Chris 'I Just This Minute Woke Up' Mooney's incredibly naive article..." Mooney, however, clearly meant only that the rhetorical war against Daschle has gone on primarily under the radar of mainstream media, not that it has literally been secret.

Starting off with such phrases allows posters to make the issue Mooney's alleged ignorance rather than the substance of his article. Consider excerpts from a post by "Congressman Billybob", who writes:

What is "secret" about attacking this egotistical, bigoted clown in public, in front of God and everybody? I smell a set-up, a pending claim that some "Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy" is at work here...
Daschle is a menace to the continued existence of American freedoms. Fortunately, he doesn't have much time to do harm. As I wrote a few weeks back in "An Open Letter to Tommy Daschle," his tenure as Bolshevik ("Majority") Leader will be no longer than the tenure of Bob ("Cur Dog") Toricelli, soon to be former Senator from New Jersey.

In his first paragraph, "BillyBob" manages not only to mock Mooney for calling attacks on Daschle "secret," but connect his article to Hillary Clinton's allegations of a "vast right wing conspiracy". Thus an association is created between Mooney's article and the allegations of Ms. Clinton, which many Free Republic posters seem to consider typical of left-wing paranoia.

Notice how these attacks are introduced. After picking up on one word in the title and attacking it out of context, BillyBob apparently considers the issue settled and goes on to do exactly what Mooney criticizes: slamming Tom Daschle as "egotistical", "bigoted", "Bolshevik ('Majority') Leader" and "a menace to the continued existence of American freedoms". Free Republic posters commenting on Mooney's article never actually defended anti-Daschle jargon because it has become so ingrained that its truthfulness is self-evident.

Smirking Chimp: "No More Mr. Nice Guys"

Meanwhile, on liberal site Smirking Chimp the jargon flowed just as freely in a thread on Mooney's article. To liberal defenders of Daschle, it is apparently shocking that anyone would dare to take on the mild senator from South Dakota. While Mooney's article only pointed out the use of jargon by some conservatives to unfairly frame Daschle, some liberals took it as proof Daschle has clean hands, and an opportunity to paint all Republicans as supportive of smear campaigns.

A representative combination of the Daschle defense and anti-Republican attack was found in a post by "BajanMan", who wrote:

I doubt any of this crap will work. I mean Daschle? He's about the straightest straight-arrow in the USA. It merely typifies the reptilian mindset of the repuglicans. What was that Julia Roberts said? In the dictionary republican comes between 'reptile' and 'repulsive'? So true.
But if any of these attack dog tactics do start taking hold, it's time for the Dems to unleash their own attack dogs - and go after Rove, O'Neill, the whole misbegotten clan. No more Mr. Nice Guys. There's still too much backlog of payback from the attempted Clinton impeachment, to allow any new slanders to propagate.

Whether Daschle is a "straight-arrow" is not the issue. The man is certainly not above reproach - legitimate criticism of him has certainly been raised and will continue to be. But, more importantly, the ferocity of jargon and the honesty of the target have nothing to do with each other. Few people would call Bill Clinton a "straight-arrow", but that does not justify the kind of rhetoric that was sometimes used against him.

Calling Daschle a straight-arrow, though, is a quick way to dismiss the attacks on him, and paint all Republicans as worthy of reproach. Even though most Republicans have not been involved in the Daschle attacks, BajanMan reproaches them all as somewhere "between 'reptile' and 'repulsive'" and says it's time to turn Democratic "attack dogs" back on them. He manages to indict a whole party for the jargon-slinging of a few, however, and then associates them all with the attempted impeachment of former President Clinton, an issue that still raises the ire of many on the left.

A future of pervasive jargon and polarized activists?

The response to Mooney's article demonstrates just how polarized some of the most active citizens on both the left and the right have become. Each side believes that its jargon is self-evidently factual, and manufactures more jargon to defend its beliefs. The pervasiveness of this type of spin in online discussions - arguably some of the most open forums for political discussions today - provides disturbing evidence of how effective these techniques have been in undermining rational political debate at every level.

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Related links:
-Limbaugh takes on Mooney (Brendan Nyhan, 7/6)
-Coordinated Daschle attack admitted (Brendan Nyhan, 6/28)
-The Wall Street Journal and Tom Daschle (Ben Fritz, 6/2)
-Daschle-bashing 102 (Bryan Keefer, 5/30)
-The illegitimacy attack / Daschle-bashing (Brendan Nyhan, 5/25)
-Jeffords war of words (Bryan Keefer, 5/24)
-Democrats are wrong on arsenic (Brendan Nyhan, 4/30)
-Limbaugh on the warpath (Brendan Nyhan, 4/30)

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