After four years in the U.S. Navy and, in the decades since, a steady consumption of modern American media — books, movies, television, the internet — I assumed that I was effectively inoculated — with boosters! — from any shock that a chance encounter with the F-word might produce.
Nevertheless, I recently executed a neck-wrenching double take as I drove through a nearby neighborhood and spied a 4-by -7-foot yard sign declaring, in letters a foot high, “F— Biden.”
The unashamed display of this crude message wasn’t a one-off at a white supremacist rally or an insurrection. The neighborhood is upper middle class, the grounds are well-manicured and the house is a large, well-maintained domicile on an extensive lot. The incongruity was striking, but should it be alarming?
After all, this isn’t the first time our politics has taken a turn toward the coarse and vulgar. Still, a quick internet search for the appropriate words produces a stunning array of merchandise replete with ingenious iterations of the yard sign’s crude message, from flags to T-shirts with the F-word shaped by firearms to doormats where you can wipe your feet on Biden’s face to rolls of paper that permit you to do the same thing to other parts of your anatomy.
On the other hand, an ebbing tide lowers all boats. Substitute “Trump” for “Biden” in your search and you’ll discover the same creative collection of crude merchandise with the opposite message. And then there’s Robert De Niro’s infamous “F— Trump” speech at the 2018 Tony Awards.
Amusing or alarming? Is this just sticks-and-stones, reflecting a nation in a cranky mood? Or is it something more insidious?
In an article headlined “The Fragile Republic,” published in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, political scientists Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman assess the nation’s political health in terms of four threats: “political polarization, conflict over who belongs in the political community, high and growing economic inequality, and excessive executive power.”
Mettler and Lieberman argue that when one or more of these threats are present, “democracy is prone to decay.” They contend that for the first time in U.S. history, all four are present at the same time. Further, all are currently exacerbated by the prominence of social media and the pandemic.
Is there a relationship between the rude yard sign down the street and political polarization, one of the factors that Mettler and Lieberman argue tend to erode democracy? Are citizens crude and vulgar because they are polarized? Or are they polarized because they are crude and vulgar?
It’s hard to say which causes which, but the result is a self-perpetuating downward spiral into hardened tribal positions that make negotiation, compromise and even dialogue impossible.
The opposition becomes so demonized that any means to defeat it — even anti-democratic means — are justified. It becomes fighting just for the sake of fighting.
Last week in Ohio J.R. Majewski won the Republican nomination to run against Democrat Marcy Kaptur, the longest-serving woman in the House of Representatives. Majewski is a firm believer in QAnon, he associates with people who have been banned from social media for promoting violent conspiracy theories, and he was present at the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Majewski caught former President Donald Trump’s attention when he painted his lawn to resemble a Trump reelection banner. Trump did not endorse Majewski, but he voiced his public support in these telling terms: “ … he’s a great guy and he’s in there fighting for whatever the hell he’s fighting for. I don’t care.”
In other words, it’s not about policy or governance; it’s about the fighting.
Trump bears a lot of responsibility for the coarsening of American politics, but if you want to argue that Democrats are just as guilty, I won’t object. Human nature being what it is, neither side is likely to stop on its own.
Thus, our republic drifts on dangerous seas. As Mettler and Lieberman conclude: “The situation is dire.”
John M. Crisp is an Op-Ed columnist for Tribune News Service.