Friday, April 2, 2010

Newt's Kids

Since hearing about the epithets, death threats and violent acts directed at congressional supporters of the recently passed health care reform, I've been mulling a post on it, but haven't sat down to do it. The explanation may be simple laziness. But it was also due, at least in part, to a desire to avoid overreacting. After all, the subject itself was people overreacting. Better to let this one germinate and grow naturally.

My first thoughts were prompted by a question from my friend and colleague Tim Schmitz. He asked what I thought the closest comparison was in American history. My knee jerk answer was the 1960s--certainly a time of overheated rhetoric, with "music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air." But that didn't seem right. Anti-war protesters certainly rivaled today's Tea Partiers in their apocalyptic talk. But did party leaders then talk darkly about "Armageddon" the way Minority leader John Boehner did in the days before passage of health care reform?

I then jumped back to the 1850s, when the controversy over the expansion of slavery into the territories polarized the country like never before or since. But on reflection, that seemed wrong too. In 2009, a South Carolina congressman yelled "You lie!" at the president during an address to Congress. But in 1856, a South Carolina congressman nearly beat to death a Massachusetts senator on the floor of the Senate. Thank God, we're not there either.

So maybe there isn't a particularly good comparison to make. American politics has, since the days of the early Republic, lent itself to hyperbole. The supporters of Adams were wont to ascribe a treasonous affinity for the French to Jefferson's supporters, who in turn accused Adams of being far too fond of the perfidious British. There is, perhaps, an innate American tendency to overstate our political differences.

Still, I cannot shake the feeling that there is something inherently dangerous in the particular language being used today, especially when it is used by elected officials. It is bad enough when blowhards like Rush Limbaugh say "we need to defeat these bastards ... we need to wipe them out." No reasonable person expects anything better from that reckless demagogue. But it's another thing when political figures do the same. Rep. Randy Neuberger yelled "baby-killer" during Rep. Bart Stupak's speech on the House floor in support of the health care bill (Bill O'Reilly routined called abortion doctor George Tiller "baby-killer," and Tiller was eventually murdered in his church by a man who said he was saving lives). Former VP (and potential presidential candidate) Sarah Palin tweeted: "Don't Retreat, Instead--RELOAD." Rep. Michelle Bachmann said she wanted her constituents "armed and dangerous." Rep. Steve King told a crowd: "Let's beat that other side to a pulp. Let's take them out. Let's chase them down." When that kind of thuggish rhetoric becomes commonplace among politicians, an important line has been crossed.

Palin has of course said that her comment (and her website with a map of Congressional districts to target each shown in a gun's crosshairs) was meant to inspire political involvement and voting, not violence. One can only take her at her word. But the words we choose matter. The violent imagery sends the wrong signal to the public. It has the effect of "defining deviancy down," in Daniel Patrick Moynihan's memorable phrase. When public figures use such words, it normalizes the association of violence with political disagreements. If we're threatened with "Armageddon," what's a brick through a window?

But most disturbing of all was the Republican leadership's response to the death threats and acts of violence. John Boehner rightly said "violence and threats are unacceptable." If that had been all he said, I'd unreservedly compliment him. But he couldn't content himself with that simple, declarative statement. No, he had to introduce it this way: "many Americans are angry over this health care bill, and angry at Democrats here in Washington for not listening." In other words, they asked for it. This strikes me as the equivalent of saying that a man shouldn't have hit his wife, but she also shouldn't have provoked him and made him angry.

If this statement were the only one like it, I could dismiss it. But it isn't the only one. Rep. Devin Nunes similarly characterized the threats as at least understandable if not somehow justifiable: "when you use totalitarian tactics, people begin to act crazy." Bachmann just yesterday asserted that Nancy Pelosi, on the day of the House vote, "deliberately went through that crowd" of demonstrators "perhaps to try and incite something." So if someone called Rep. John Lewis the n-word, or spat at Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, well, they were asking for it. Minority whip Eric Cantor said he had "deep concerns" that by making these threats known, Democrats were "dangerously fanning the flames by suggesting these incidents be used as a political weapon." This is a classic example of blaming the victim.

How did we get to this point? As I said earlier, hyperbole is nothing new. But the current scorched earth political strategy of the right has a specific recent pedigree. I was reminded of that when I saw that Newt Gingrich had joined the "blame the victim" parade: "The Democratic leadership has to take some moral responsibility for having behaved with such arrogance." It was Gingrich who was the famous "bomb-thrower" in the House in the late 1980s, who argued that the House needed to be burned down before the Republicans could break the Democrats' control of Congress. Democrats had to be attacked as corrupt, their hold on power illegitimate. Gingrich brought down Speaker Jim Wright over an obscure book deal that in retrospect looks laughably in quaint in light of the annals of political corruption. He rode that success to become Minority leader, and in 1993, he pushed a strategy of trying to cripple Bill Clinton's presidency by opposing his health care bill. It worked. Health care died, and Republicans took over Congress in the 1994 elections, and remained in control of the House until the 2006 elections.

Now that they are back in the minority, that is the Republican play book once again. No cooperation. Delegitimize your political opponents. Tell the people they are losing their freedom. Smear the other side with focus-group-tested words and phrases designed to produce an emotional revulsion among the electorate. Gingrich is a smart man. He saw a path to power and he took it. But he let loose forces he could not and does not control. Limbaugh, Beck, Boehner, Bachmann, King, Nunes--they are all Newt's children. It's time for some adult supervision.

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