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Coro Fellows

As part of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, these fellows are engaged in a full-time, nine-month, graduate-level leadership training program that prepares individuals for public-affairs leadership.

From rhetoric to reality

Question: Vitriolic political rhetoric is on the rise for one simple reason: it works. In the wake of the tragic shooting in Tucson, what can political, business and community leaders do to change the political dynamic so that demonizing opponents is not a winning strategy? How do we end the rhetorical arms race?

The following responses come from six of the fellows that make up the 2011 Coro New York Fellows class.

Louder than words

Indeed, the use of vitriolic rhetoric has rapidly increased in American politics. The language and tactics of political figures that were long ago unacceptable are now commonplace. Negativity and hate is an effortless way to gain support for a particular cause. Unfortunately, I do not believe the increase of risky rhetoric is the sole cause of violent acts and angry confrontations in the political arena, especially in a country with a long history of assassinations of prominent political figures. Words can only go so far. The people who are committing these acts are reacting to the actions of our government.

Although there is absolutely no excuse for the heinous acts that occurred in Tucson, Jared Lee Loughner and people like him are reacting to their strong distrust for the government, their ceaseless economic hardship, the corruption and broken promises. Politicians should choose and use their words wisely, because it does not take much to push an unstable person over the edge. But resetting the tone should not end with rhetoric. If any tone should be reset, it should be the actions of the government. After all, actions do speak louder than words. - Quanice Hawkins

Think before they speak

Does fiery political rhetoric really "work?" Not in Sarah Palin's case, if her goal is to become president. The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and others is not only a terrible tragedy, but a tremendous political liability for Palin in 2012. Media outlets have quickly pointed to Palin's depiction of Congressmember Gabrielle Giffords in crosshairs as an incitement to violence. At least one even asserted that Palin had Giffords' "blood on her hands." Is this entirely fair? No. Palin didn't shoot the Congressmember, a madman did. But her irresponsible comments make her guilty in the court of public opinion. In the wake of this horrific event, Palin likely won't lose the support of Tea Partiers, but she will continue to lose the support of moderates--and it takes moderates to win the presidency. So how best to put an end to demonizing political rhetoric? Politicians should remember the lesson of Sarah Palin and think before they speak, because someone might just take them seriously. - Max Nardini

A dangerous mind game

The word "change", which was a large part of President Obama's campaign platform, often brings joy along with fear into the hearts of human beings. The shift in the political climate during Obama's inauguration created a sense of hope for the many citizens in the United States. The citizens that feared proposed changes then began to launch a campaign to transform politics into a dangerous mind game. While opposing proposed changes, fear and hate were fed through the media and turned opponents into "targets".

Until individuals running for office are actually held responsible, just as well as regular citizens would be for damaging the character of other citizens, there will be no change. When consequences are enacted for the actions of individuals who have chosen slander over intellectual debate, the political climate will begin to shift. Communities need to return to supporting candidates because of the issues they support, regardless of party lines. Political, community and business leaders, who are disgusted enough with the game that is being played with the lives of other leaders, need to stand up with a campaign against hate crimes. - Imani Farley

Return to governing

I believe this question merits some discussion, though I also must mention that it is hasty to connect the Tuscon shooter's motives to any political ideology right now, when the full extent of this weekend's tragedy has yet to be understood. The fundamentals of political discourse in the United States necessitate discussion. It is inevitable that in times of challenge, this dialogue quickly veers down another path, away from sensible, measured phrases and toward something else entirely. I believe every attempt should be made to sustain this free exchange, as it contributes to the health of the body politic, but leaders across all sectors must make an attempt to agree where this discourse begins and where it ends.

Business and community leaders must avoid attempts to politicize spaces and speech. Much of the frustration with the political dynamic grows from voters' inability to engage in real conversations; political leaders should make it a priority to offer voices from both sides of the aisle as many opportunities as possible to have their ideas and perspectives heard. Those same leaders must also elect to put aside constant campaigning and return to governing. - Matthew Spector

Rhetorical arms race

Regardless of the motivations held by the killer of this past Saturday's tragic shooting in Tucson, our country's political, business and community leaders must discuss the inflamed political rhetoric and heated discourse that has engulfed the nation in recent years. Political leaders must lead the charge in modeling responsible behavior by doing their job: improving the quality of life for all Americans by focusing on policy issues and the legislative process rather than ideological rhetoric primarily for the purposes of eliciting reactionary responses and advancing their own political agendas often driven by special interests. Campaigns such as Sarah Palin's rifle cross-hair portrayal, targeting certain Democratic districts that voted against the health-care bill, have direct consequences and may trigger unintentional acts of violence.

Our country's political fabric relies on the democratic process reflected in our history and the ability to affect change at the ballot box instead of through violent outbursts. The ability to end our country's increasing rhetorical arms race rests with the public. The American people, including my peers and me, must hold our political, business and community leaders accountable to engage in an honest conversation of the critical steps to prevent heinous events such as the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings from repeating. It is time to address our country's high bullying rate (one in four American kids is abused by another youth), to tackle why the US remains the largest importer of small guns, and to discuss why mental health is not part of a gun background check. - Christian Laurence

Attention spans

Today's violent rhetoric is a symptom of a larger social virus, one that has attacked and crippled the American attention span. After this weekend's unspeakable tragedy, many have pointed the collective finger at our political leaders. They have been blamed for creating an environment of bitter discourse and incivility. Indeed, while public figures in all sectors have taken part in eroding respect within public dialogue, the ethical core of our national debate has long since withered away. In "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business," Neil Postman notes the stark contrast between the manic display of opinion in the contemporary dialogue and those of the 19th century, when political debates between candidates would endure for hours in a Socratic back-and-forth until opposing views had been fully articulated.

While the era of sound-byte news might seem at its peak today, it is hardly a new phenomenon: Postman noted the trend in 1985. As we mourn the loss of the recently killed and pray for the recovery of Congresswoman Giffords, our leaders should consider how they can restore our collective attention span--because without it, our Twitter feeds and social networks will continue lighting up with one-line flames that stoke an already fuming public discussion. - Jeremy Rogoff

Return to all panel responses

By Coro Fellows

 |  January 11, 2011; 10:47 AM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please report offensive comments below.

I'm not writing to take issue with the six writers above. I will simply take a different tack, though I'm sure there are points of intersection.

One of the reasons we're in this awful place is that it has become our second nature to rehearse and nurse our grievances. We are constantly aggrieved about one thing or another. The chaotic and voluminous barrage of recriminations about hate speech issuing from BOTH sides of the divide in the wake of this tragedy is populated by comments that way too often are mere litanies of the injustices perpetrated on us by those demons on the other side. We expect to be outraged, and then expressing our often-manufactured outrage provides a dangerously addictive emotional rush. When something then occurs about which we SHOULD express grievance, we have long since disgusted our opponents and squandered any modicum of good will remaining within them because of our constant whining and wolf cries.

Gawd, people. Grow up. It ain't all about you . . . And beware those who enrich themselves primarily by stirring the pot. There are plenty out there, and one is too many.

Posted by: post_reader_in_wv | January 13, 2011 11:22 AM
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