Washington • Angry activists, national pundits and even some politicians have cast political debates as a clash of good and evil, denigrating opponents with comparisons to Adolf Hitler, Osama bin Laden or some other villain.
But a new Salt Lake Tribune poll shows that Utahns are split on whether the intense rhetoric in recent years is leading to actual acts of violence, such as the mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 8.
The poll, conducted earlier this week by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, found that 46 percent of respondents believe the partisanship and rhetoric is provoking acts of hate or violence, while 44 percent disagree. Ten percent said they were unsure.
Since the poll had a margin of error of 4 percentage points, the result is a statistical tie, with Utah Democrats and independents much more likely to say the rhetoric drives behavior than Republicans.
The question didn't specifically mention the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords,D-Ariz., or the six people killed at the event at a Tucson grocery store parking lot, but it did seek to capture the views of Utahns on the immediate debate that followed: Did outlandish rhetoric and partisan rancor influence suspected killer Jared Loughner?
No evidence has emerged to suggest that's the case, but in the aftermath many in Washington, including President Barack Obama, have made a plea for more civility.
"At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we're talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds," Obama said at a community-wide memorial service.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, agrees with Obama and credited him with trying to tamp down the rush to blame one group or another for the shooting. But when asked the poll question directly, Chaffetz said he doesn't believe the rhetoric is provoking violence.
"I think it is a legitimate thing to take a deep breath and remember it is imperative to be very civil," he said. "But it is important that we don't overreact to what happened in Tucson either."
Chaffetz pointed out that it has been decades since the last time a House member has been attacked and he worries a backlash on rhetoric may hurt American democracy more than help it. Chaffetz has also said he will carry his concealed weapon more often because of security concerns.
"The hallmark of America is our vigorous and vibrant debate," he said. "We shouldn't slow down with that at all."
The two-term congressman said he has been on the receiving end of some vitriolic e-mails and online statements, which comes with the territory. But some of those comments can cross the line into crime. Clearfield police announced Friday that they are investigating e-mailed threats to state Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, from people upset at his proposal to allow the killing of feral animals.
Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, believes elected officials should take some action to tamp down the partisanship, even if it is largely symbolic. He has joined a push to change the seating arrangement at Obama's State of the Union address next week. Instead of Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other, he wants to see them integrated throughout the House chamber. It's an idea that has caught on among some in Washington, for example Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has agreed to sit next to Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Matheson, the only Utahn to sign on to the effort, said he hopes it would reduce the "polarization and bickering which is at as high a fever pitch as it has ever been."
Matheson may feel the political atmosphere is more rancorous than any he's seen in his 10 years in office, but political scientist Martin Medhurst said it's far from the worst in the nation's history.
"If you look at the discourse in the 1960s, it was far more inflammatory than what we hear on the radio and television today," said Medhurst, a Baylor University professor who studies politics and rhetoric. "It goes in cycles."
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, a former high school history teacher, notes that in the past groups have attempted to bomb the Capitol and members of Congress have assaulted each other on the House floor.
Medhurst said the difference between today and those more violent times is the reach of such highly charged political discourse.
The expansion of cable news, talk radio and the Internet has allowed more people to spout more opinions to a broader audience. But it has also resulted in a competitive media landscape that rewards ratings rather than quality debate.
"The real issue is, are we engaged in political discussions or are we engaged in a ratings war?" said Medhurst.
As to the Tribune poll, Medhurst said he, like Chaffetz, would say the discourse is not provoking acts of violence or hate, and he said the academic research has proven fairly conclusively that media depictions of violence have no causal relationship to people performing acts of violence. Though he makes a caveat for mentally disturbed people who may be predisposed to act on highly charged political rhetoric, which doesn't seem to be the case in Tucson.
He did say pundits and politicians alike should re-evaluate the way they debate politics.
"If your main strategy is to arouse emotion, to arouse great dislike or hatred, maybe you are treading on the edge of unethical communication."
Thomas Burr and Scott Sherman contributed to this article.
What do Utah's members of Congress think?
We asked Utah's three U.S. House members the same question that appears on the poll: Do you feel the current level of political partisanship and rhetoric is or is not provoking acts of hate or violence?
Rep. Jim Matheson, D • Not sure
Rep. Rob Bishop, R • Is not
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R • Is not