The United States is unique in its commitment to freedom of expression, embodied in the First Amendment and a significant body of constitutional precedents. In America, the right to ‘speaks one’s mind’ is legally sacrosanct.
One consequence of the uncompromising protection of freedom of speech is that American political discourse is often notable for its passion, and the frequency with which fervent advocacy can cross the often murky and contested line between civility and vulgarity.
Increasingly, the most extreme vitriol is often aimed at whomever occupies the White House, as the office of the presidency is viewed in zero-sum terms, and the luxury of the presidential ‘honeymoon’ – however brief – has become a thing of the past, another norm shattered on the shoals of hyperpartisan rancor. South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson’s infamously shout, ‘You lie!’ during President Barack Obama 2009 congressional address on the Affordable Care Act appeared to be a startling breach of decorum. Today, such outbursts seem routine and normal, as the most strident voices of the left and right strive for attention on social media in a sharp-elbowed battle for the attention of deep-pocketed donors.
Passionate political advocacy is not itself such a bad thing. The campaigning aspect of politics has always had a dramatic element. Moreover, politics is played for high stakes, and sharp elbows and rhetorical flourishes are commonplace in democratic politics, particularly in times of rapid change, where millions of Americans fear they are losing their place in society and relegated to the scrap heap.
Extreme speech threatens democratic governance when it erodes political norms, and when violent figurative speech is internalized – and potentially acted on – by an increasingly radicalized citizenry. The number of threats conveyed to politicians of varying stature suggests that partisan polarization may be entering a more violent phase.
Is it reasonable to hypothesize that the level of vitriol currently circulating through American political discourse is driving the spike in threats of violence against elected officials, from members of Congress to local election officials? The difference between ‘I’ll go to Washington to fight for you!’ and ‘If you don’t fight like hell, you won’t have a country anymore’ may seem trivial, but in fact may convey politically significant messages.
Speech acts are significant not only for their literal content, but for the signals they communicate. ‘I’ll go to Washington, D.C. and fight for you’ is a ubiquitous way of signaling a determination to aggressively represent constituents’ interests. In contrast, ‘If you don’t fight like hell, you won’t have a country anymore’ arguably conveys to its audience a call to immediate action, or face the loss of station or way of life.
Which brings us to ‘Let’s Go Brandon!’ The slogan originated at a NASCAR event when driver Brandon Brown won a race, and an on-air reporters interviewing Brown appeared to deliberately misconstrue an anti-Biden chant from the crowd.
The need to ‘trigger’ or taunt the opposition is a key feature of ‘Let’s go Brandon,’ illustrated in the number of elected Republicans who have scrambled to appropriate the term, exchanging their MAGA gear for shirts, masks, and hats bearing the slogan.
The popularity of such a catchphrase reveals an unhealthy pathos in our political culture that – amplified through social media – feeds a seemingly inexorable movement from figurative taunts to more literal portents of violence.
As claims of election fraud implying that Joe Biden was an illegitimate president have metastasized throughout the Republican electorate, some of Trump’s more radicalized followers may see in such language permission to take more extreme actions.
This potential can be seen in an October 25 Turning Point USA event led by Charlie Kirk, where an audience member asked, ‘When do we get to use the guns?... How many elections are they going to steal before we kill people?’
Americans should be rightfully skeptical of attempts to erode the First Amendment’s protections, but not all speech is equally worthy of its protections. The challenge lies in draining away the incentives for politicians to continue feeding the fires of radicalization.
President Biden’s address on the anniversary of the January 6th Capitol Riot was helpful, but we all bear a responsibility to protect the common decency and civility that should embarrass people who think ‘Let’s Go Brandon’ is harmless fun.
Preventing zealots from pulling the rest of the country into chaos will require inspired leadership, a forlorn hope in these polarized times.
Dr. Ken Hicks is a political scientist and department head of History and Political Science at Rogers State University. The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Claremore Progress editors or Rogers State University.