Posts Tagged ‘media’


Terrorism on American soil is not new. Nor are crimes of hate. Since at least the 19th century, politically motivated citizens have used violence to kill for a purpose. What makes the horrible massacre in Orlando stand out is its connection to a more recent phenomenon: the murder of large numbers by a single attacker.

Even though gun ownership has always been widespread in American society, premeditated murder of innocent mass crowds has only become common during the past 20 or so years.

Shooters such as Omar Mateen are not connected to movements that hope to improve society, but instead desire to bring the whole edifice of civil society crumbling down around their anger. That is why they target schools, churches, clubs and other public spaces. That is why they pledge allegiance to foreign groups like ISIS. The problem is much deeper than anything we might simply label “Islamic radicalism.”

So why now? Our racial, ethnic and religious diversity are not new; we have always been a country of immigrants. Attitudes of hate and prejudice are not new; our country’s horrible history of lynching and vigilantism shows that powerful groups have frequently attacked the vulnerable in the past. What is new is an explosive mix of cultural, political and technological changes.

Our public culture today valorizes individual combat and gratuitous violence. This is not just a problem with the entertainment industry, but our leadership as well. Presidential candidates, governors, chief executgives and even some university presidents strut and brag about “shock and awe,” “annihilating evil,” and “carpet bombing,” among other phrases. And this is not just rhetoric. Winner-take-all combat is acted out in our sports, our businesses, and our policymaking every day. Our 21st century public culture glorifies individualist destruction, and Omar Mateen’s bombastic selfies manifest this phenomenon.

Since 2000, our national and foreign politics have replaced conversation with violence. We have legitimately deployed force against terrorists abroad, including ISIS, but we have refused to engage in a thoughtful public discussion about the social and economic reasons people are drawn to these groups. We have divided the world and ourselves – “you are with us or against us” – and we have justified extremism of our own because the adversaries are so “evil.”

The policy effects have come home when presidential candidates brag about shutting down the government, insult our leaders and defend physical attacks on domestic opponents. Our politics are tribal, and in a war of tribes, ISIS has leverage to recruit and inspire those who have no other group to call their own.

Technology is not the cause of our cultural and political violence, but it multiplies our hatreds. The paradox of the internet and social media is that they are global and provincial at the same time. We can communicate simultaneously with counterparts far away. They can see so much more. Instead of cosmopolitanism, however, these connections encourage balkanization. Individuals stop talking to their neighbors, classmates and co-workers, and instead communicate with people who think like them on other continents.

This creates tribal echo chambers where distortion and extremism become unfiltered “facts” and personal motivators. The worst and simplest ideas get reinforced. Sophisticated and complex understandings of society, which require multiple points of view, are lost. Terrorists such as Mateen are brain-washed not just by ISIS, but by our tribal world of communications.

So what should we do? Blaming ISIS does not get at the root of the problem. Targeting Muslims diverts attention and creates more terrorists.

The time has come for leaders at all levels of our society to begin working toward rebuilding a civic culture that values conversation, compromise and diverse communications. That must be a priority that every one of our leaders affirms. Our leaders must begin by looking closely at themselves and asking how they can model what is not being modeled almost anywhere today. We need a culture of peacemaking, not violence. We need politics of inclusion, not attack. And a civic dialogue with multiple points of view in direct conversation. At the very least, the painful events in Orlando should motivate us to reject any advocates of violence, hate and tribalism in our country today.

This article originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News, the Austin Statesman, and the Waco Tribune on 13 June 2016; The Monitor on 14 June 2016; the Philadelphia Inquirer on 15 June 2016; the Houston Chronicle on 21 June 2016; and other newspapers around the United States.




Sixty years ago an angry, ambitious, argumentative Wisconsin politician burst on to the national scene in the United States. He was a plain-speaking, hard working, “two-fisted” figure who drew accolades for his willingness to brawl with established, elite, and entrenched bastions of power. He was the small town David from rural Wisconsin who traveled to Washington to fight the big town Roosevelts, Achesons, and Kennedys. He was the hero of “Middle Americans” who elected him to office convinced that they had lost control of their lives, and that Joseph McCarthy would defend their basic interests.


Joseph McCarthy and the Midwest

Joseph McCarthy was not a unique figure. He represented a broader postwar movement that echoed previous periods of political and economic uncertainty in American history. The Upper Middle Western states – with their mix of agriculture and industry, small towns and medium size cities – are a repository for a deep American skepticism toward urban elites, educated experts, and cosmopolitan internationalists. There are, of course, many powerful interests that embody these qualities in the region, but they are always tempered by a stronger populism, localism, and isolationism than in any other part of the United States.

Time and again, these Midwestern tendencies encouraged citizens in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin to oppose American military adventures in the Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq, and other places. Time and again, Midwestern priorities encouraged attention to small town needs: high tariffs on agricultural and industrial goods that competitors sold at lower costs abroad, rural electrification, road construction, and restrictions on immigrants who would under-price local workers. The Upper Midwest of the United States has consistently slowed (and sometimes resisted) the dominant trends toward global expansion and free market capitalism in American history.

Joseph McCarthy played to all of these Midwestern assumptions during a period, after the Second World War, when many small-town citizens believed they had lost control of their lives to a global set of forces they could not understand. Communist regimes appeared to be on the march in Europe and Asia, threatening the security of patriotic Americans. Federal policies that emphasized centralized management of the economy, income redistribution, and targeted investments in urban (and suburban) areas threatened assumptions about economic freedom on Main Street. Washington D.C. asked small town businesses and families to pay higher taxes, negotiate more stringent regulations, and cede power to more distant figures.

This was the modern American New Deal state. “Joe” McCarthy, the brawling poker player known in many a local tavern, tapped into popular uncertainty and frustration throughout his home state of Wisconsin, the Midwest, and many other parts of the country. McCarthyism was a rebellion against a modern, globalizing America.


McCarthy’s Tactics

McCarthy had three tactics that he deployed with remarkable consistency. First, he refused to follow established “rules” in his home community, in the Senate, and in national politics. The norms of decorum and fair play, he argued, only served the empowered elites. The small town street fighter had to punch hard, cheat when necessary, and take no prisoners. Unlike any other Senator of his day, McCarthy began and ended his career by attacking his colleagues (even in his own party), brow beating witnesses, and lying consistently to get his way. He intimidated, he blustered, and he always attacked. Politics was war for McCarthy. It was about destroying enemies, not building compromise or consensus.

Second, McCarthy exploited the modern media. He had an instinctive understanding for the power of simple and sensationalist headlines. He recognized that strong accusations, even if untrue, would stick if they were stated authoritatively, consistently, and ahead of efforts at correction. McCarthy did not seek to explain complexity, he aimed to simplify for the sake of broad appeal. He turned political advertisements into character assassinations, congressional hearings into show trials, and political speeches into personal harangues. He replaced Roosevelt’s “fire side chats” with the fireworks of an ordinary “Joe” unmasking the greedy outlaws in our midst.

The outlaws, of course, were not the real beneficiaries of American political and economic transformation after the Second World War. Wealthy businessmen and prominent media moguls in the Midwest were McCarthy’s earliest supporters. The outlaws, for McCarthy, were the national and international organizations that small town Americans distrusted most of all: the unions, the university professors, and, of course, the communists. This was McCarthy’s third and most important tactical insight: small town citizens admired “self-made” rich men, but they distrusted groups of workers and thinkers who defined themselves by their profession, not their local community. They resented those who looked beyond kitchen table and bar-room politics for authority, status, and income.

McCarthy’s communist witch hunts combined his three political tactics: he flagrantly broke all the rules of civility (and due process), he made a media show of his efforts, and he attacked the most vulnerable figures who had the weakest connections to small town politics: Jews, Hollywood celebrities, intellectuals, and government civil servants. As many historians have observed, McCarthy’s appeal came from his effectiveness in voicing popular frustrations and targeting distrusted groups as scapegoats. Guilt by association was a form of public catharsis for frustrated men and women across the country.


The Tea Party and Governor Scott Walker

Today, the Tea Party has revitalized McCarthy’s playbook. Based largely in small towns and rural areas of the United States, Tea Party supporters have broken most assumptions of civil discourse, attacking their opponents, often denying that their opponents are even “American.” They have exploited the modern media with simple catchy phrases, distorted images, and intentional distortions of the truth. Most of all, they have targeted vulnerable groups with weak local ties, groups that resemble those attacked by McCarthy: unions, mainstream celebrities, intellectuals, and civil servants. Sometimes they even lapse into their accusations against Jews and communists – such as when they attack Chicago mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel as un-American and condemn health care reform as socialism. The rhetorical extremism of the Tea Party is McCarthyite in tone and substance.

In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has gone farther than any other elected politician since Joseph McCarthy in applying this agenda. (It is not a coincidence that he and McCarthy come from similar Wisconsin circumstances.) Walker has spoken explicitly of “dropping the bomb” on established political figures around the state, transforming government rapidly to reflect the needs of allegedly over-taxed small town business owners. He has played to the national media, with frequent invocations that the “state is broke” and that he is standing up to the “vested interests.” Most distressing, Walker has targeted public employees (teachers, hospital workers, firefighters, police officers, and others) with a venom that makes these modestly paid figures sound like corrupt fat cats milking the poor small town citizens of the state. The governor has used every opportunity, even when budget issues were not on the line, to crush the power and voice of organized workers.

He has done this because he can. He has done this because the public workers are an easy target for people around the state who feel someone must shoulder the blame for their recent economic difficulties. Wealthy figures support Walker, ironically, because his agenda reduces their tax burden and the scrutiny for their misdeeds that might share some blame for the recent recession.

Popular demonstrations and political resistance to the Tea Party and Governor Walker are on the rise. Recall efforts against Republican legislators (and eventually Governor Walker) in Wisconsin are likely to succeed. Like McCarthy, Walker has over-reached, turning many of his supporters against him as they see the hateful consequences of his actions. Midwestern voters are frustrated and scared, but they are not mean-spirited.


The Future

If the history of McCarthyism teaches us anything, we should expect more attacks from Walker and the Tea Party in coming months. They will raise their venom. Walker and his supporters have already begun to accuse their opponents of being “outsiders” (from out of state, from the wrong backgrounds, from the wrong religions) with no right to voice their dissent. Walker and his supporters have pushed more legal boundaries, holding votes without public notice and denying transparency for their actions. Walker has even mused about deploying force or instigators among peaceful crowds. Like McCarthy, Walker and the Tea Party have traveled so far down the path of hatred that they cannot turn back. They will get nastier, and more uncontrolled, before they are stopped.

McCarthy’s career crashed when the leaders of the U.S. Army and the Republican Party refused to tolerate him anymore. The opposition of his own party and the most respected institution in the country made it impossible for him to continue. The same will be true for Walker and the Tea Party. Despite the growing crowds of opponents, they will continue until contemporary Republicans, business leaders, and other respected right-of-center groups renounce them.

Walker’s hateful politics undermine stability, security, and business. This should be evident to everyone observing events in Wisconsin. Sane supporters will eventually recognize this and turn away in disgust, but a lot of damage will already be done. We must hope that this process of McCarthyite self-destruction happens faster in the second decade of the twenty-first century than it did in the 1950s. Otherwise, we should brace ourselves for more witch hunts, more deception, and probably more law-breaking. Joseph McCarthy reminds us how nasty American politics can become, especially in a state like Wisconsin.


More Reading

Three books everyone should read on McCarthyism: David M. Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense; Richard Fried, Nightmare in Red; Ellen Schrecker, Many are the Crimes.

I want to thank my graduate students, Daniel Hummel and Kevin Walters, for their comments on the ideas in this post.

This blog post originally appeared at

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.