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home : opinion : columnist November 29, 2020

10/26/2020 8:11:00 AM
Name-Calling Of Political Opponents

Wayne Howard
Staff Writer


You may by now have seen multiple Facebook posts by Republicans referencing Joe Biden's reference to supporters of Donald Trump as 'chumps.'  Four years ago, Hillary Clinton used the term 'deplorable,' and Trump supporters began calling themselves 'the deplorables' and used it as a rallying cry.

The idea of politically name-calling didn't originate with Clinton or Biden; Trump himself called Clinton 'Crooked Hillary,' and he's often referred to Biden as 'Sleepy Joe.'  Most are familiar with some of his other nicknames for those he doesn't like, such as 'Pocahontas' for Elizabeth Warren, and misnomers intended to offend like 'China virus' for the SARS-CoV-2 virus or the disease it causes COVID-19. 

I've seen a plethora of posts by both Democrats and Republicans lamenting the turmoil of the times and claiming America has never been this divided.  As a long-time student of history, I often reply, it isn't so.  While we are certainly in the midst of a turbulent time when many have apparently chosen one side or the other to the exclusion of compromise or reason, it isn't anything really new in America. 

We haven't quite made it to the point just yet where Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel.  There are multiple other examples of significant discord and many similar scenarios to what we're experiencing today.

In 1934, the United States had made its way into the Great Depression.  Many of Franklin Roosevelt's social programs hadn't yet been passed.  Social Security didn't get approved until 1935 and the 40-hour work week under the Fair Labor Standards Act didn't happen until 1938.

In California, novelist Upton Sinclair ("The Jungle") switched from Socialist to Democrat and ran for governor.  He swept the Democratic primary, and appeared a favorite against Republican governor Frank Merriam, who had been appointed to fill the unexpired term of James Rolph in June of that year.

In our time, the news media has been accused of being too liberal.  In 1934, the situation was exactly the opposite.  The major newspapers were owned by wealthy families who wanted no part of Roosevelt's New Deal and were even more against seeing a socialist elected governor of the state.  They began a smear campaign that was far more sinister and likely more effective than the ones of our era.  

The Los Angeles Times called Sinclair's supporters "maggot-like hordes."  The first political consultants (what today we call "spin doctors") emerged.  Sinclair's characters in his novel had some very radical ideas, and the newspapers used quotes from those characters taken out of context and attributed to Sinclair himself instead of the characters.  A New York Times reporter sent to cover the California election queried his counterpart at the LA Times about their coverage and why it was so one-sided.  The reply, "because that's what our readers want to read."

Even Hollywood got in on the act.  MGM threatened that if Sinclair got elected, they'd move to Florida.  Newsreels, in those days very popular because television didn't yet exist, blasted truly 'fake news' about Sinclair.  

Merriam was re-elected with less than a majority of the votes.  A third party candidate, a centrist, got almost 13%.  Merriam won with 48% and Sinclair finished second with about 38%.  

So you 'chumps' and 'deplorables' and 'snowflakes' are nothing new.  American politics has always been dirty business.  The major difference now from then is the addition of unrestrained social media as a news source.

We've been through other troubling times.  America has survived wars--including the one between secessionist states and those intent on preserving the union, truthfully as much for their own benefit as for the noble purpose of ending slavery; the Great Depression; and multiple epidemics including the flu pandemic of 1918.  I expect us to survive this calamity, too.

The pandemic will likely end sometime next year but it will get worse over the next few months regardless of whom we elect November 3rd.  The economy won't fully recover right away, and I expect tougher times regardless of the election outcome.  What I have called "the Lost Year" will become a bad memory.  Perhaps it will have taught some a few lessons that will result in positive changes.  Your grandchildren will likely remark at some future date, "nothing like this has happened before."  The truth is: yes, it has.

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