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September 24, 2017

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Will vitriol dominate U.S. politics?

The purpose of these quotations and the hate mail that accompanies them in cyberspace is to portray the President as a socialist, a fascist, a communist or something else even worse. The Internet is crackling with comparisons between Obama and such dictators as Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. Add to this racial and religious allegations that "Barack the magic Negro" is not a Christian at all, but a secret Muslim who is bent on taking control of both guns and money so he can castrate capitalism and destroy America as we know it.

Just as despicable, say the critics, are Obama's determination to dictate what kind of cars Americans drive, his plans to "nationalize" health care, federalize education and steer the whole country far left — all very dirty words in a nation where so many politically charged words have so little meaning.

Millions of Americans seem to believe this vitriol. Perhaps that is explained in part by recent research that concludes that the reading and mathematics skills of American 17 year-olds have not improved over the past thirty years. Considering the explosion of knowledge worldwide since 1979, it should be no surprise that Americans test in the bottom five of thirty industrialized countries in both math and science, or that name-calling so often prevails over intelligent argument in United States politics.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with sordid political humor, but some of what we see now is getting uncomfortably close to the kind of invective that inspires assassination attempts. America suffers when the level of political discourse in these difficult times is such that the National Chairman of the Republican Party feels compelled to apologize to a talk show host (Rush Limbaugh) who calls for a new President to fail.

So often the so-called dialog is no more than attacks devoid of content and innuendo devoid of fact, even among the politicians who aspire to "dethrone" President Obama in 2012.

Besides poisoning the political atmosphere, this kind of vitriol is going to make it much more difficult to achieve any kind of bi-partisan collaboration to resolve America's myriad problems. As recent votes in Congress have shown, too many members will not defy attackers and do what is right if that risks their re-election prospects. Sadly, the Republicans in this economic crisis have been far more able to vote "No" en masse than to come up with sensible alternative recovery proposals.

Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope in the garbage that passes as political discourse. Most of the stench in recent days has come from the Right-at-any-cost fraction of the political spectrum. Although those messages are pungent, the latest public opinion polls suggest that most Americans are sensible even if not very well educated. Less that a quarter of those polled recently identify themselves as Republicans, a startling drop in support for the party that occupied the White House and controlled both Houses of Congress from 2001 until the 2006 election.

Hopefully the Grand Old Party which produced and sustained presidents like Lincoln and Reagan will get the message, and look to talent instead of talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh for leadership. A healthy democracy in the United States needs two political parties that can actually come up with sensible policy alternatives and offer an intelligent choice between them.

Goldsmith is a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan's Kaohsiung Office.

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