Take fearmongering out of US politics

Originally printed in The Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 2015.

A particular fine line has long existed in the election campaigns of democracies, and America’s 2016 presidential race will be no different. Candidates or their supporters are right to point out policy differences with opponents, even speak of possible negative consequences. Yet to cross over into stoking fear among voters with alarmist rhetoric or images—often simply to win—can bring a serious consequence to democracy itself.

Politics can be rough on candidates but the worst aspects can have lingering effects. As Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine said in a March speech, “Incivility by political leaders sends a message to our society that such discourse is acceptable, while the increasing coarseness in our society is a green light to divisive politicians.”

A new study by Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster of Emory University finds that with an increase in polarizing politics over the past half century, American voters increasingly “hold very negative opinions” of those in opposing camps and prefer not to associate with them. In 1980, 55 percent of voters gave the opposing party a neutral or positive rating, the study found, while only 26 percent did so in 2012. The change is true for Democrats, Republicans, and even those that claim to be independents.

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