The Memo: After shooting, soul-searching on United States’ polarization

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The fierce heat of political debate in an increasingly polarized nation took center stage Wednesday after a gunman with left-leaning political views opened fire on GOP lawmakers practicing for the Congressional Baseball Game.

Republicans said they felt as if they had been hunted by the shooter, whom the FBI named as 66-year-old James Hodgkinson of Belleville, Ill.

{mosads}While law enforcement has made no public statement on the shooter’s motivations, his left-wing social media postings drew quick attention.

On Facebook, a page apparently belonging to the shooter showed affiliations with online groups with incendiary names such as “Terminate the Republican Party” and “The Road to Hell is Paved with Republicans.” Hodgkinson also wrote a number of letters to his local newspaper blasting the GOP.

The attack left House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) in critical condition in a Washington hospital. Four other people were injured. Hodgkinson was shot by law enforcement officers and died later from his injuries.

Democrats practicing for Thursday’s game at a different location were photographed praying for Scalise and the other shooting victims, and politicians on both sides of the aisle sought to calm tensions.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave back-to-back speeches on the House floor expressing their desire to transcend partisan differences.

“For all the noise and all the fury, we are one family,” Ryan said, in remarks that Pelosi praised as “beautiful.”

President Trump, speaking in the Diplomatic Room of the White House, said, “We may have our differences, but we do well in times like these to remember everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love our country.” 

Trump also said the nation was “strongest when we are unified.”

After reports emerged that the gunman worked as a volunteer for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) last year, Sanders in a speech from the Senate floor called the shooting a “despicable act” that had left him “sickened.”

Experts warn that the hope for a sea change in American political culture, however, is likely to go unfulfilled.

Trump’s rise has led to increasing passions about everything Washington does, and the engagement — and anger — of everyday citizens is deep.

“Thirty or 40 years ago, it was somewhat less clear what it meant to be a Democrat or a Republican. There were some Republican liberals like [New York Sen.] Jacob Javits and there were some conservative Democrats like [Georgia Sen.] Sam Nunn or [Mississippi Sen.] John Stennis,” said Matthew Levendusky, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in political polarization. 

Now, he added, “ordinary people are more politically divided.”

The early days of the Trump presidency have proven deeply polarizing. 

Trump was elected with the worst approval ratings of all time, and actions such as an attempt to enforce a travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries led to widespread street protests. 

At the same time, supporters of the president have fiercely defended him and have lashed out at what they see as attempts by the media and political opponents to delegitimize his administration.

Activist groups on both sides have seen increased engagement and fundraising, while audiences for news in all its forms have soared. 

Over the longer term, experts say, polarization has been fueled by a splintering media climate that allows people to choose their news from sources that conform with their existing ideological leanings. Social media, with its networks of like-minded people, amplifies that effect even further.

Even within the political system, party identities have also become clearer — and more firmly divided. 

Judd Gregg, a columnist for The Hill who was a three-term Republican senator from New Hampshire before leaving office in 2011, said that incivility in politics has gotten “radically worse” in recent years.

“There were always people on the fringe, but they never dominated the discussion. They were background noise,” Gregg said. “Unfortunately, now on social media and the 24/7 cable news channels, those folks have the arena.”

There is growing evidence, too, that where partisan enmity is concerned, the personal really is political.

According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, 45 percent of people who expressed mainly conservative views said they would be “unhappy” if a family member married a Democrat. Thirty-one percent of people who expressed mainly liberal views said they would be equally displeased if a family member wed a Republican. 

The same report revealed that the proportion of Democrats who said they held a “very unfavorable” view of the Republican Party, and vice versa, had more than doubled between 1994 and 2014. 

A full 50 percent of people who held “consistently conservative” views — and 35 percent of people who held “consistently liberal” views — said it was important for them to live in a place “where most people share my political views.”

Pleas similar to those heard on Wednesday were made back in 2011, after then-Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot and gravely wounded while meeting constituents in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson. Six people were killed in that attack.

At a memorial for the victims, then-President Barack Obama said that “at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized” it was essential to “make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”

Virtually no one believes that the tone of political discourse has improved since then.

“I’m not optimistic events like today will spark a major shift,” Robb Willer, a Stanford University professor of sociology who has studied polarization, said on Wednesday. “But we can always hope.” 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

This column was updated at 8:57 a.m.

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Paul Ryan
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