Guest Column: Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!In early 2011, this chant echoed for months throughout the grounds and within the rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capital building.
By: Grace Coggio, River Falls Journal
In early 2011, this chant echoed for months throughout the grounds and within the rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capital building.
For the thousands who descended on Madison to declare their opposition to the Budget Repair Bill and its controversial provision ending collective bargaining for most public employees, the protest was clearly democracy in action.
At the same time, for those who supported the work of Gov. Walker and his majority party in the Legislature, the passage of the bill was clearly democracy in action.
Given that the concept of democracy is foundational to our identities as U.S. Americans, shouldn’t we at least find common ground in what the word means?
Unfortunately, as the people of Wisconsin take sides in another round of polarizing recall elections, it is apparent that our “shared” language is anything but.
The impasse we’re witnessing in Wisconsin is indicative of the extreme partisanship gripping the nation.
Recent research in psychology explains the polarity in views as a fundamental difference in how we process information.
For example, individuals who tend toward conservative views prefer consistency and order while individuals who tend toward liberal views prefer change and novelty.
As communication scholars who study words and meaning in social contexts, my colleagues and I examined how political differences among the people of Wisconsin played out in the language they used to debate the Budget Repair Bill.
We analyzed hundreds of letters to the editor published in newspapers across the state of Wisconsin, including River Falls, during the height of the protests (February through May 2011).
Given the stark divide in public opinion, we anticipated that the language used by letter writers supporting the bill would be different from the language used by writers opposing it.
Instead, we found quite the opposite: Most of the letter writers used similar language and themes to support their respective positions.
In particular, each “side” appropriated concepts of democracy as justification for their stance. In addition, they both argued about what is fair and hurled shaming accusations at the opposition.
What was striking in the results of our study were the differences in meaning despite the common language used by letter writers.
For example, both sides used the term “unfair” and insisted on “shared sacrifices.”
Those supporting the bill argued it was unfair that the public sector got a “better deal” than the private sector, while those against the bill argued it was unfair that the wealthy got the “better deal” in the form of more tax breaks.
Shaming words were also prevalent in many of the letters. However, the difference was in who warranted the shameful rebuke.
The writers against the bill characterized Walker and Republican legislators as “disgraceful,” “morally bankrupt,” and “trampling on freedom.”
In contrast, those supporting the bill described the 14 Democratic lawmakers fleeing the state as a “shameful dereliction of duty” and the protestors, many of whom were public employees, as “throwing childish tantrums,” “addicted to tax dollars,” and “democratic shirkers.”
Essential to arguments put forth on both sides of the debate was the term ‘democracy.’
Those supporting the bill justified its passage as the direct result of democratic elections in which “the majority had spoken” and viewed the protests as causing an undemocratic “paralysis of government.”
Those against the bill argued it resulted from an unjust “tyranny of the majority” and proclaimed the protests as their “fundamental right (in) a free country to demonstrate against injustice and make our voices heard.”
As a society, how can we find solutions to the problems that divide us if we cannot agree on concepts that ought to unite us?
The similarity in the words used to argue for and against the Budget Repair Bill ultimately obscures the conflicting perceptions of their meaning.
If we want public dialogues to move opinion and influence government policy in ways that benefit all of us, we must also engage in conversations about what words mean and to whom they apply.
After all, the empathy that allows us to understand the perspective of another is central to effective communication. Without this common ground of understanding, our public discourse will continue to be nothing more than a shouting match, a volley of arguments that fly past each another rather than meeting head on to actually work toward acceptable solutions.
As the rhetoric heats up for another election season and the politicians and groups supporting them employ “familiar” terms to win us to their side, let’s keep in mind that such language can also serve to perpetuate our divisions and further diminish the likelihood that common ground will ever be achieved.
We might begin with finding shared meanings for what democracy looks like.
Editor’s note: Guest columnist Grace Coggio is assistant professor of communication studies at UW-River Falls. She teaches courses in organizational, intercultural, and leadership communication. Last winter during the state capital protests, she helped analyze published letters to the editor. Her column explains the findings and what they say about the current political stalemate and how language is used. Coggio was assisted in this research by UWRF Prof. Jennifer Willis-Rivera and student Kelli Rotter.