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How Mean Can We Get?

As any of my somewhat exasperated friends, family and co-workers can tell you, I have developed an obsession this election season with the music from the monster Broadway hit "Hamilton."

I was one of the fortunate people who got to see the play last year, and I was blown away. More recently, I have been listening to the soundtrack -- backwards, forwards and on shuffle.

It should come as no surprise that a political junkie like me should connect so strongly with a play that is about war, politics and ambition. Every time I listen to the score, I hear something different.

Even in 1776, politics was not beanbag. It’s not a spoiler to remind you that the story of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr resulted in the most famous duel in American history -- and took Hamilton’s life in 1804.

Then as now, running for president -- they both aspired to it; neither achieved it -- can be deadly serious.

And yet, this election year has boggled the mind in many ways, confounding pollsters, pundits and politicians alike. The business of prediction-making has all but withered on the vine. (As one Hamilton lyric goes: "The World Turned Upside Down.")

In its place, however, we have seen a sharp spike in intolerance and plain old meanness that almost makes me long for the cruel efficiency and tradition of guns drawn at dawn.

Candidates and their partisans have taken to attacking each other's spouses. They use Twitter as a sharpened blade to trash each other from a distance. No wonder newsrooms are trying to figure out how to keep their reporters safe when they venture out to cover campaign rallies.

Donald Trump, by apparent design, is the catalyst for much of this. Ben Carson, who also ran for the Republican presidential nomination before dropping out and endorsing Trump, acknowledged as much on the weekday chat show "The View."

Pressed about his endorsement, he acknowledged that he does not condone everything Trump has to say, but it works.

"When you’re very nice, you’re very respectful, you talk about the real issues, and not get into all these issues, where does it get you?" he said to host Whoopi Goldberg. "It gets you where it got me. Nowhere, OK?"

But it is far too easy to pin blame rather than examine our culture of meanness.

Certainly the news media shoulders its share of the blame. The excellent Washington Post correspondent Juliet Eilperin chronicles how our jobs as journalists have changed in this Nieman Reports article.  

"Though the volume of coverage has grown significantly, no small portion of it has been either hastily assembled, trivial, or, like so much coverage of previous campaigns, focused exclusively on the horse race," she writes. "The nanosecond news cycle incentivizes reporters to publish as soon as possible and often to elevate snark over substance. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric guarantees traffic, so his statements garner more attention than crucial policy issues."

It's a hamster wheel.

I asked my Twitter followers about this, and their responses -- dozens of them -- were revealing. Some, of course, responded with even more snark. That's the way of Twitter.

But most of the responses were thoughtful.

Carl Quintanilla, the CNBC news anchor, sent this:

And here are a few others:


This one, from Atlantic columnist Ron Fournier, made me smile:

Call me the last living optimist. I think most people strive for kindness, even though we sometimes fall short. That means that old devil on our shoulder sometimes wins the day. (Who hasn't laughed at a mean joke?)

But it feels like we have crossed into the dangerous territory of late, and the distance from disagreement to violence and blame has been short-circuited.

I am clearly not the only one struggling with this, and it is a bipartisan concern. Both President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan have shared their concerns from the campaign sidelines.

Perhaps that concern will win the day, and our children -- who in the words of another famous musical "have to be carefully taught" -- will not take the wrong lessons from what we are showing them.