Gabrielle Giffords

Political violence and democracy in America

I was away camping in the Big Basin Redwood State Park over the weekend and was shocked when I returned to civilization to find out about the attempted assassination of Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Shocked, but not surprised. I have been afraid something like this would happen basically since I got to the US in June 2008, just as the rhetoric of the Presidential campaign was heating up.

It’s hard for me to put this into historical perspective, it feels different being here, but this seems more intense than previous boughts of violence-laced paranoia. It’s hard to describe to Australians how nutty it can be over here. There’s simply no analogues that are sufficient. I try to describe Glenn Beck to people and they say “so like Stan Zemanek ?”. Well, yeah, sort of, both right-wing radio hosts and all that, but also, no. Way, way beyond Stan Zemanek.

America can feel like a country coming apart at the seams. There have always been extremes in American politics, people who lived in their own bubble, convinced of their own truth. But it’s different now. The advent of social media and an ever more diverse and niche-focused media landscape has actually allowed this bubble to grow larger, more immersive, to become all-encompassing for many millions.

It’s said you’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts but that simply isn’t true anymore. It’s hard to imagine a belief which can’t in some way be collaborated online. Within a wide window of beliefs you can construct a media diet consisting of TV, radio, print and online which corroborates and reinforces your beliefs. America’s most-watched news channel promotes wild conspiracy theories and declares that Obama is a socialist intent on taking over America and changing all that is good about it. And millions of Americans in their living rooms nod along, becoming ever more convinced that the America they love is somehow slipping away, that despite the clear prominence of their beliefs they are a persecuted and at-risk minority, that time is running out.

The rhetoric is regularly violent, the tone almost always urgent. Words like treasonous, socialist, Nazi and conspiracy are thrown around with an intensity and regularity I could not have imagined before moving here. It may be that political ideology did not specifically inspire Jared Loughner, the Arizona shooter, but it’s hard to imagine that a climate such as this would not increase the risk of crazy people doing crazy things. Combine this with the number of guns in America (and, shockingly, this event has only led to a spike in sales of the gun used) and it’s impossible not to worry about violence like this.

America seems to be a country that can no longer talk to itself. The gap between the factions is so large as to overwhelm attempts at dialogue, and when that happens democracy itself comes under threat. Democracy requires respecting your fellow citizens and accepting their choices even while working to change their minds but operating within their own factual universe the partisans of the American far-right, who increasingly control the Republican Party, will stand for no compromise and accept no facts that interfere with their beliefs. There’s no chance for the Presidency to unite the country when millions of Republicans do not even accept Obama’s right to be President.

I hope this assassin proves to be a “lone nut”. I hope nothing like this happens again. But unless something changes in America it’s all too easy to imagine this just being the beginning.

What are these changes that are needed? How do you bring a country back from the brink? How do you rebuild trust, reduce fear, reclaim a common identity that supersedes politics?

This is, I think, the most urgent work that needs doing in America today. A challenge that calls for both visionary social entrepreneurs and the everyday activism of people doing things differently, reaching out, connecting. As we search for exciting social change ideas for StartSomeGood I really hope we will see many taking on this vital challenge, building the bridging social capital that is needed to revitalize so many democracies.