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He said She said: Taking a Look at the Adversarial Discourse of America

It seems like Americans are hating on the media lately. In light of the current presidential campaign, many are criticizing its increasingly adversarial role, and are questioning the subjectivity it often imparts. Can a candidate really stand for something by only standing against something else? No.

Unless you’re in America! Fueled by polarized bipartisanship and a long tradition of verbal (and non-verbal) duels, the adversarial political dialogue in the nation is anything but undemocratic, and contributes to the transparency of the current elections. Tracing back all the way to the revolutionary period, American adversarial discourse plays an underscoring part in upholding the country’s ideals of democracy today.

The political invective of the early- to mid 18th century was basically nonexistent. The arcana of government shielded policy makers from the public sphere, and issues were solved by pretending there were no issues at all; if a dispute arose, it was diagnosed as a moral flaw of the opposition. A gentleman’s agreement was reached to return to the status quo.

Leading up to the revolution, political passions rose from American society, and a new philosophy of rebellion emerged. Political discourse grew powerfully adversarial. This time, there was nothing morally wrong with any of those in opposition. Being the opposition made them right.

Politics spilled into the public realm. The almost immediate politicization of public life accustomed Americans to full disclosure, and, after banding together against the imperial power, issues within the country became diversified. Political parties began to emerge, and newspapers kept pace with the dialogue unfolding.

The first major instance of adversarial political discourse within America were disputes between the Jeffersonians and Federalists in the late 18th century. Jefferson, who advocated the extension of suffrage for all white males, stood against the Federalists, who were hesitant to give this privilege to the common American in fear that issues were not well understood among them.

Jefferson turned the issue to the people, and newspapers sprang into action covering political debates. The emergence of political discourse precisely parallels the increase and penetration of newspapers in American society; Late 18th century political invective gave rise to a new level of public exposure not previously acceptable, and boundaries between public and private were blurred. Politics became personal.

As discourse and opinions evolved, partisanship in America was fueled both by what your party stood for, and by what the other party did not. From its founding, American democracy was built on the premise that the people gave their leaders consent to govern them – a consent that necessitated the full disclosure of information in order to make rational choices. From the beginning, full disclosure took the form of adversarial political discourse, and dialogue was leveraged deeply by attacks on holes in an opponent’s argument.

A more extreme version of early adversarial discourse and partisanship took the form of dueling. Highlighting the tension generated within the new spaces for free speech and open thinking, dueling in the United States was unique in that it was rooted primarily in political disagreements – in Europe, most duels were fought over women and gambling.

While dueling is somewhat outdated today (as far as I know), the idea of aggression as a means to achieve full disclosure is not forgotten. Luckily for current generations, however, it’s much less lethal than it used to be in that the media today is aggressive for us. Americans want to know who they’re voting for. Trivial things are only trivial things if exposed and deemed thus by the public. The only burden exists in the absence of knowledge. Informed decisions require acute transparency, and, in America, transparency is a political duel to uncover what the public should rightfully know – and the media the weapon used to do so.

In this regard, current frustration with the media is a misdirected frustration  with the political system as a whole. News stories are simply a reflection of the political environment in which journalists are present and reporting on the issues. If it weren’t for adversarial press, transparency of government and full disclosure could not be as easily guaranteed in the American political system, and democracy would be undermined. The political invective of the current presidential debates is nothing but democratic, and criticisms from Americans that the media is overly adversarial goes directly against the values they place in democracy.

If you’re going to criticize the expansion of the adversarial nature in the media, you’re basically criticizing American democracy and its evolvement over the years. As democracy is one of the few things that both candidates agree on in this election, it’s best not to draw your rapier on that issue.

Valerie Weber


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