Politicos should stop using over-the-top, inflammatory rhetoric. The problem with it is that it inflames people.
But the reason people use it is that inflaming people is a really effective way to motivate them.
Let me string a few concepts together for you:
- People do not change their minds because of new facts. Rational arguments don't change minds.
- Emotional arguments do not change anyone's mind, but they can make people concerned if they already agree with you.
- The stronger the emotional impact, the more concerned you make people.
- The more concerned people are, the more likely they are to act.
Ergo, if you want to get all the people who agree with you to vote, join a protest, or sign a petition then your best bet is to manufacture the situation into a crisis.
Let's take this statement: "We need to pass this gas tax because without it critical transportation infrastructure would deteriorate, resulting in even greater expenses in the future because we'll be forced to do even more repairs."
Now contrast it with this: "In 2-4 years there will be a convoy of school buses travelling down I-25. This will be a school trip to see Santa's reindeer at a winter wonderland. It's a school for the deaf, blind, and disabled. That convoy will pass over a 40 year old bridge. If we don't pass this gas tax, the bridge will collapse under the weight of those buses. All of those deaf, blind, and disabled kids will die in the resulting crash.
If you don't vote for this tax, you are killing those children. I've brought them with me today so you can look into their eyes for 5 minutes. Then I want anyone who won't vote for the tax to tell them why they need to die so you can spend $3 less to fill up your Hummer."
Which approach is more effective in getting people to vote? More importantly for talk radio, which one of these will get mentioned in the press, attract more coverage, and get higher ratings?
So you can tell politicos they need to tone down their rhetoric, but that's like telling companies they need to stop polluting or telling professional athletes that it's bad to take steroids. In our culture, appealing to someone's better virtue when it runs counter to accomplishing their goals is nearly fruitless. (Which doesn't mean it hurts to try, but don't get your hopes too high.) We think of people who voluntarily follow their virtue in spite of the limitations it places on their success as heroes, not ordinary people.
Asking the government to regulate speech to tone down its content is entirely too dangerous, and in most cases doesn't fall into the "shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater" example for free speech restrictions.
The alternative is to find a way to get the population to stop responding so well to these kind of emotionally weighted arguments, but I have no idea how to accomplish that.
So though the Giffords assassination appears to have no direct political inspiration from a specific political figure, it's still true that the level of discourse in this nation is often scary. But I remember people having "Assassinate Clinton--and her husband too" bumper stickers back in the 90s, so it's unclear to me that it's gotten worse in recent years.
If we want to change the level of discourse, we need to change our cultural attitudes. The only thing I can think of is modelling the right attitude and refusing to participate in the dialog of madness. Which is hardly anything, but it's all I've got.