On a lovely Friday evening in September, in an affluent suburb of St. Louis, a group of neighbors got together to talk about their country. They were Republicans, Democrats and independents--the sort of people who keep up with the news of the day, always vote and often decide the winners of presidential elections. I asked them what was on their minds.
"Civility," said Jane Miller, a Democrat. "We can't seem to have a reasonable conversation about anything anymore, and it reaches right down here to our neighborhood. We're having this really ugly fight about deer. We're overrun with them. Some people want to kill the deer, others don't, and then there's a third group that wants to sterilize them. The argument has gotten really vile. People are acting crazy."
"Sterilizing deer is crazy," said Ed Hindert, a retired businessman. "You've got people out of work, the government running a deficit, and people want to spend money to sterilize ... deer?"
I nudged them toward the question of national incivility. "It all started with Newt Gingrich and the way he ran the Congress in the 1990s," said Bart Sullivan, an attorney who described himself as a moderate Democrat. "And now there's the Tea Party. The willful ignorance is incredible. They don't believe in global warming. They want to cut expenditures in the middle of a deep recession. How do you fight this anymore?"
I asked if there were any Tea Party supporters in the room. "I am," said Dan Amsden, the president of a systems-control firm. "The Tea Party is all about fiscal responsibility," he said and launched into a lecture about the vagaries of taxation, constitutionality, Nancy Pelosi, the Department of Education. It went on. Soon, Sullivan challenged him, and the two of them began wrangling back and forth, heatedly. The 20 or so people in the room watched this in silence, as if it were Hannity or Hardball.
All of which had taken 15 minutes. But Amsden had now assumed a certain dominance. He wasn't particularly loud or angry--he was quite intelligent, in fact--but he was persistent. He had views on everything. As we moved from topic to topic, Amsden always had a theory. There were others who spoke, but much of the group, especially the other Republicans in the room, lapsed into silence. Afterward, I took an informal survey of the silent Republicans, all of them men, and found that they didn't agree with Amsden's views. They were more traditional conservatives. I asked one why he didn't speak up, and he said, "I don't like to get involved in public disputes."
I: How to Build a Megaphone