Over the last few weeks, several candidates for public office in Minnesota have made (or had revealed) statements extreme enough to garner terms of rebuke like “intolerant,” “appalling,” and “poisonous.” From state Senate candidate Mike Parry’s tweet linking Democrats and pedophiles, to Congressional hopeful Jim Hagedorn’s punningly homophobic “Mr. Conservative” blog posts, recent candidate communiques prompt a few questions: What’s going on? Has the flu jumped to the state’s body politic?
“It’s an especially virulent strain of hatred and intolerance that we see,” says DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez about recent comments by three Republicans and an independent. “I’ve never seen people so openly racist and homophobic.”
Melendez blames “the Teabagger movement” and conservative agenda-setters like U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and Rush Limbaugh. But he also recognizes changing conditions imposed by a new media environment that affects everyone in public life.
“Our lives are much more on the record than 10 years ago or even two years ago,” he tells the Minnesota Independent.
Prof. Ronald W. Greene, who researches political communication at the University of Minnesota, sees the same shifting ground for partisan rhetoric, but he puts the recent rash of outrageous comments in the context of “in-group” speech that has been studied as a commonplace phenomenon for 50 years.
“It’s a well-known process that seems to have been intensified in the new media,” and it’s heightening the fragmentation and polarization of politics, Greene says.
“Speakers think they’re rewarded for this kind of behavior. They have to be more representative of the group than anyone else. You would only be able to differentiate yourself by being more extreme.”
Four on the edge
Addressed to in-groups to varying degrees, the recent crop of statements were made or revealed – and in a few instances, recanted – by four candidates on four online platforms: a campaign website, a blog, Twitter and YouTube.
First was Torgerson, a Fifth Congressional District independent who tacks conservative on cultural issues, is seeking to unseat DFLer Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress. At her campaign website and in comments to MnIndy and other media, Torgerson espoused a no-holds-barred critique of Islam as antithetical to American values of free speech and equal rights, and called Ellison as “not a proper person to have in our federal government” for his ties to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Next came Jim Hagedorn, a Republican running for Congress in the state’s First District. His blogging as “Mr. Conservative” was riddled with homophobic and harshly partisan wordplay. “Until Paul Wellstone’s plane crash, DFL Trotskyites were confident the Senator would soar [emphasis his] to victory over Norm Coleman” is one example. Another: Judges striking down Texas’ sodomy law “injudiciously fisted two hundred and twenty-seven years of the Republic’s mores into the bowels of cultural debauchery.” Hagedorn scrubbed those comments from his site.
President Obama is “a Power Hungry Arrogant Black Man,” wrote Mike Parry, the endorsed Republican in this month’s special-election campaign to replace retiring state Sen. Dick Day in District 26, on Twitter. Like another tweet that asked “what’s with Dems and Pedophiles?” in apparent reference to hate-crimes legislation, that message was scrubbed, and Parry issued a partial apology and explanation.
Most recent is Allen Quist, like Hagedorn a Republican running for the state’s First District seat in Congress, seen in a GOP YouTube video saying: “Our country is being destroyed. Every generation has had to fight the fight for freedom… Terrorism? Yes. That’s not the big battle. The big battle is in D.C. with the radicals. They aren’t liberals. They are radicals. Obama, Pelosi, Walz: They’re not liberals, they’re radicals. They are destroying our country.”
Not quite what they intended
None of the four – with the possible exception of Torgerson, writing at her campaign site – seems to have meant for their statements to reach a wider audience. Bloggers acted almost as the candidates’ literary agents, pushing sample quotes into the online political marketplace – sometimes, as with Parry and Quist, all the way into the mainstream media.
Greene sees the resulting whipped-up ferment as a kind of challenge to political polarization and fragmentation by appealing to voters not yet committed to a party. In the competitive dynamics of the new-media environment, such exposures “get the public to look at how extreme these people really are, and erode [candidates’] ability to speak to that voting middle.”
The message, says Greene: Candidates who make extreme statements are “not really ‘of’ these people.”
For his part, Melendez contends outrageous rhetoric isn’t really “of” the rank-and-file Republicans he knows.”They’re not haters like this.”