I also seem to remember that the “climate” of nastiness that is supposed to have fostered the Giffords assassination attempt did not spring from the head of the Tea Party. It began long, long ago, sometime between Lyndon Johnson’s anti-Goldwater atom-bomb ads and the election of Richard Nixon, and then accelerated with the election of Ronald Reagan (whom Sam Donaldson badgered at press conferences in a manner unthought-of in the previous history of the Washington press corps). I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania when Reagan was gunned down, and I awoke the next day to find an op-ed column in The Daily Pennsylvanian, written by one Dom Manno, a DP staffer, gloating over the shooting and regretting only that the president had survived. Mr. Manno had to be taken in hand by the Secret Service for a brief lesson about the consequences of encouraging assassins, but the lesson Manno’s column taught me was about the serene sense of immunity he had felt in wishing a conservative president dead. The Left, in other words, never notices when it turns politics or journalism into a free-fire zone. It is only when one of its own gets hit in the process that the nastiness becomes unspeakable — but it is still never the Left’s fault for having manufactured the ammunition in the first place.
If we are living now in a time of unprecedented political “vitriol” — and I believe we are, and very much to the detriment of democracy itself — it is a brand of vitriol that was sprayed with relentless generosity on George W. Bush, who was caricatured by The Nation
, day by day during his presidency, as a morphed version of Mad
Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman. And it was only yesterday that the Left’s president referred to Republicans as “enemies,” while the Speaker of the Left snarled at her critics as Nazis with swastikas.
Still, the rule of the Left is that nothing committed by the Left is a sin, whether it’s poisoning the political “climate” for the last forty years, or accusing “the Tea Party” and “the Right” of poisoning it when they strike back in kind. This is hypocrisy on a grand-mal scale. But what blinds the Left to this hypocrisy is the fundamental operating conviction of the Left that all governments are really about power, and that conservatives’ talk of liberty is either a dimwitted relic of the 18th century or else a camouflage for other brands of power; hence, when the Left turns on the acid hose, it is merely doing what the pursuit of power has shown can and must be done on behalf of progressive policies. Hypocrisy occurs only when conservatives try to pick up the hose themselves, since that betrays the Unbearable Secret of the Right, that conservatives are really interested only in power, too.
When conservatives speak of liberty, what they should be speaking of is restraint — the self-restraint of the virtuous republican citizen who, like Washington, turns his back on the blandishments of power; the prudential restraint that spoke of ending a civil war with malice toward none and charity for all; the structural restraint of a Constitution that compels the components of government to occupy themselves with each other so that ordinary citizens may live a life unmolested by the powerful. That sense of restraint has not always governed conservative rhetoric. We are fooling ourselves if we think that Barack Obama was entirely wrong when he spoke of a landscape pockmarked with Miniver Cheevys, drunk on rage or race or guns, dreaming dreams of violent shortcuts to celebrity or power. His mistake has been to imagine that these exist only on the right. Now, when the overreach of the Krugmans and the Packers has become coldly clear, is a good time for conservatives to remind themselves of the interdependence of liberty and restraint. The Right, at least, has a better principle at its core.
— Allen C. Guelzo is Henry R. Luce III professor of the Civil War era, director of Civil War Era Studies, and associate director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.