When free speech means hate speech

The congressman who called out "baby killer" typifies a dangerous misuse of liberty in America.

During a debate on the health-care bill that President Obama fought for so long to pass, a Republican Texan congressman named Randy Neugebauer interrupted a fellow representative to protest about a passage he regarded as being too easy on abortion.

"It's a baby killer," he shouted. The words were heard and recorded, although for a while no one was clear who had said them. After Neugebauer was identified, he issued a statement of apology:

In the heat and emotion of the debate, I exclaimed the phrase "it's a baby killer" in reference to the agreement reached by the Democratic leadership. While I remain heartbroken over the passage of this bill and the tragic consequences it will have for the unborn, I deeply regret that my actions were mistakenly interpreted as a direct reference to Congressman Stupak himself.

I have apologised to Mr Stupak and also apologise to my colleagues for the manner in which I expressed my disappointment about the bill. The House Chamber is a place of decorum and respect. The timing and tone of my comment last night was inappropriate.

Not long afterwards, however, he appeared on the Fox News show Hannity and showed that his remorse was limited, at best:

I don't apologise for speaking what I thought was the truth. I believe this bill was a baby killer, and I'm not backing down or apologising for that. The fact that some thought I was speaking about Congressman Stupak, that was what I apologised to him about. But I'm not going to ever apologise for expressing my feelings on something as important as this piece of legislation.

Further reports revealed even more visceral reactions to the health-care bill. Democratic politicians have received death threats from opponents of the reforms. And a brick thrown into a party office in New York State was wrapped in paper on which the late Republican presidential contender Barry Goldwater was quoted: "Extremism in defence of liberty is no vice."

I bring all this up because I believe it is a consequence of the way that America 's much-cherished First Amendment right to free speech has been so abused that it has led to a culture where truth and civilised debate have been elbowed aside. Malicious rumour, disregard for the facts, distortion and plain lying so dominate political discourse that it is no surprise if some individuals move from vicious words to actual actions.

I've mentioned before my encounter with the US right-wing pundit Ann Coulter. This is the woman who thinks "liberals are racists", the French are "a bunch of faggots", only property owners should be allowed to vote, and anyone who disagrees with her is a "fatuous idiot" or "evil".

Now even in America, there are some who think Coulter goes a little over the top. But her books, with such charming titles as If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans, are still bestsellers, and she is much in demand as a speaker at events for the burgeoning Tea Party movement.

We have no one like her here. "I know," she said to me when we met. "It's horrifying what the Conservatives are in England. You make clear that I'm not one of them."


Never mind the accuracy. Feel the buzz

Far more serious than the insults dished out by the likes of Coulter (and she has plenty of allies on the airwaves) are the downright lies that were perpetrated against Senator John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. These were thoroughly outlined by Al Franken, formerly a comedian best known for Saturday Night Live, but now Democratic senator for Minnesota, in his 2005 book The Truth (With Jokes).

If you want a shocking read, I recommend it (and you can read my 2006 interview with him for the NS here). In the chapter "How Bush Won: Smear", Franken explains that "at the outset of the campaign Kerry's record as a decorated combat veteran made him seem strong, patriotic and steadfast -- especially when contrasted with Bush's own record of cowardice". So? "It had to go." And go it went.

A group called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth published Unfit for Command, a book detailing their claims that "John Kerry misrepresented his record and ours in Vietnam and therefore exhibits serious flaws in character and lacks the potential to lead". Eventually, various big beasts of the print media began to unpick these claims, such as this contemporaneous report in the New York Times.

But as Franken writes: "Long before the mainstream press had debunked each and every charge . . . those charges had been played over and over again on Fox, on talk radio, and in right-wing rags, and had burrowed their way into America 's collective brain stem to lay their eggs of pure evil."

He quotes the Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant's conclusions: "You know, we've put a million stories in our waste baskets over the years, because they don't . . . check . . . out. Today, we publish, or we broadcast, the mere fact of the accusation, regardless of whether it's filled with helium . . . We served as transmission belts for this stuff without ever inquiring into its accuracy."

The Swift Boat Vets' campaign, which, the NYT found, had "a web of connections to the Bush family, high-profile Texas political figures and President Bush's chief political aide, Karl Rove", could well have cost Kerry the election. And none of it was true.

The comments of a former Harvard Law School professor, Susan Estrich, on ugly rumours circulating about John McCain during the last election apply equally well in Kerry's case: "If this is what a free press means, maybe they should try being a little less free. Or a little more careful."


Brutalised discourse

Don't get me wrong. I'm not blaming the American media (although one does wonder where their much-boasted care with fact-checking is in all this). I blame a culture in which free speech has been so elevated to such sacred, untouchable status that any curtailment of it is deemed intolerable.

And this noble concept is now frequently used to justify the statement of distortions and unproven accusations that would be nipped in the bud by our much more stringent libel laws. I know I am in a minority, but that's one reason I am wary of the campaign to liberalise them here. I certainly believe that the lies about Kerry, for instance, would have been subject to instant legal action in Britain.

When free speech allows for the brutalisation of political discourse, one in which debate gives way to disgraceful name-calling, one that becomes so devoid of respect for the truth -- still less respect for office -- that a representative could see fit to shout out "You lie!" during President Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress last year, or "baby killer", as with the incident last week, it is too easy and small a step for some individuals to think that brutal actions are justified as well.

In the US, that the voice of the "little man", of Joe Six-Pack, must be heard, is a proposition that cannot be gainsaid -- even when what he has to say is vile, hateful, nonsensical and untrue.

Given that Joe Six-Pack has been so vigorously encouraged in this belief, it should not be a surprise if he occasionally thinks that when his words are ignored, his fists will do just as well.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Forget the flat caps - this is what Labour voters really look like

Young, educated women are more typical than older, working-class men. 

In announcing the snap election, Theresa May set out her desire to create a “more united” country in the aftermath of last year’s referendum. But as the campaign begins, new YouGov analysis of over 12,000 people shows the demographic dividing lines of British voters.

Although every voter is an individual, this data shows how demographics relate to electoral behaviour. These divides will shape the next few weeks – from the seats the parties target to the key messages they use. Over the course of the campaign we will not just be monitoring the “headline” voting intention numbers, but also the many different types of voters that make up the electorate. 

Class: No longer a good predictor of voting behaviour

“Class” used to be central to understanding British politics. The Conservatives, to all intents and purposes, were the party of the middle class and Labour that of the workers. The dividing lines were so notable that you could predict, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, how someone would vote just by knowing their social grade. For example at the 1992 election the Conservatives led Labour amongst ABC1 (middle class) voters by around 30 percentage points, whilst Labour was leading amongst C2DE (working class) voters by around 10 points.

But today, class would tell you little more about a person’s voting intention that looking at their horoscope or reading their palms. As this campaign starts, the Conservatives hold a 22 per cent lead amongst middle class voters and a 17 per cent lead amongst working class ones.

Age: The new dividing line in British politics

In electoral terms, age is the new class. The starkest way to show this is to note that Labour is 19 per cent ahead when it comes to 18-24 year-olds, and the Conservatives are ahead by 49 per cent among the over 65s. Our analysis suggest that the current tipping point – which is to say the age where voters are more likely to favour the Conservatives over Labour – is 34.

In fact, for every 10 years older a voter is, their chance of voting Tory increases by around 8 per cent and the chance of them voting Labour decreases by 6 per cent. This age divide could create further problems for Labour on 8 June. Age is also a big driver of turnout, with older people being far more likely to vote than young people. It’s currently too early to tell the exact impact this could have on the final result.

Gender: The Conservative’s non-existent “women problem”

Before the last election David Cameron was sometimes described as having a “woman problem”. Our research at the time showed this narrative wasn’t quite accurate. While it was true that the Conservativexs were doing slightly better amongst young men than young women, they were also doing slightly better among older women than older men.

However, these two things cancelled each other out meaning that ultimately the Conservatives polled about the same amongst both men and women. Going into the 2017 election women are, if anything, slightly more (three percentage points) likely overall to vote Tory.

Labour has a large gender gap among younger voters. The party receives 42 per cent of the under-40 women’s vote compared to just 32 per cent amongst men of the same age – a gap of nine points. However among older voters this almost disappears completely. When you just look at the over-40s, the gap is just two points – with 21 per cent of women and 19 per cent of men of that age saying they will vote Labour.

With both of the two main now parties performing better amongst women overall, it’s the other parties who are balancing this out by polling better amongst men. Ukip have the support of 2 per cent more men than women, whilst the gender gap is 3 per cent for the Lib Dems. 

Education: The higher the qualification, the higher Labour’s vote share

Alongside age, education has become one of the key electoral demographic dividing lines. We saw it was a huge factor in the EU referendum campaign and, after the last general election, we made sure we accounted for qualifications in our methodology. This election will be no different. While the Conservatives lead amongst all educational groupings, their vote share decrease for every extra qualification a voter has, whilst the Labour and Lib Dem vote share increases.

Amongst those with no formal qualifications, the Conservative lead by 35 per cent. But when it comes to those with a degree, the Tory lead falls to 8 per cent. Education also shapes other parties’ vote shares. Ukip also struggles amongst highly educated voters, polling four times higher amongst those with no formal qualifications compared to those with a degree.

Income: Labour’s tax increase won’t affect many Labour voters

John McDonnell, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, has already made income part of this campaign by labelling those who earn above £70,000 a year as “rich” and hinting they may face tax rises. One of the reasons for the policy might be that the party has very few votes to lose amongst those in this tax bracket.

Amongst those earning over £70,000 a year, Labour is in third place with just 11 per cent support. The Conservatives pick up 60 per cent of this group’s support and the Lib Dems also perform well, getting almost a fifth (19 per cent) of their votes.

But while the Conservatives are still the party of the rich, Labour is no longer the party of the poor. They are 13 per cent behind amongst those with a personal income of under £20,000 a year, although it is worth noting that this group will also include many retired people who will be poor in terms of income but rich in terms of assets.

Chris Curtis is a politics researcher at YouGov. 

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