Politics & Policy

Civility for Thee

In 2012 Obama will hope that his polarizing politics, coupled with calls for bipartisanship, will trump his unpopular record.

An evil psychopath, Jared Lee Loughner — a man with no discernible ideology or political affiliation, and declared by those who know him to be both unhinged and unacquainted with contemporary media — shot a U.S. congresswoman, murdered a federal judge, and killed five other innocent people, while wounding several more.

Almost immediately, prominent liberal journalists and several politicians in the U.S. Congress and in state legislatures directly attributed Loughner’s rampage to the “climate of hate” in general and to the Tea Party, Fox News, Sarah Palin, conservatives in general, or the Republican party in particular.

#ad#The local Democratic sheriff, Clarence W. Dupnik — in a brazen display of the Bloomberg syndrome of posturing on cosmic issues as local crises go unaddressed — thought he could elevate himself into Nelson Mandela status by damning the Right for the violence. Then his narrative too imploded when it was learned that Loughner had had several run-ins with a negligent law-enforcement staff, with plenty of indications that he was not all there. Observers soon made the argument that if there was a preexisting climate of hate about which Dupnik was now a self-appointed expert, why then had not the sheriff provided a single officer to protect Congresswoman Giffords in her open-air fora within Dupnik’s jurisdiction?

In some ways, the most embarrassing demagoguery came from the secretary of state. While in Abu Dhabi, Mrs. Clinton — in a rather shameful sort of moral equivalence — apparently intended to impress her hosts and score political points at the same time. So without any evidence, she labeled Loughner an “extremist,” in a general call to quell political violence both in and outside the United States. 

What was the evidence for the charge that Loughner was a product of the political fringe, or that his rampage was a logical extension of right-wing politics? The scene of the crime was Arizona, which had been the object of liberal vituperation, failed economic boycotts, and political censure because of its efforts to enforce federal immigration laws that the Obama administration was not enforcing. The suspect was a lone white male. And there was a vague memory that such ideological scavenging amid tragedy had worked well in the Timothy McVeigh case. I think that was about it.

So in less than 72 hours the legion of liberal pundits, bloggers, and newspaper editors that had rushed to demagogue the issue was reduced to embarrassed silence. Loughner was clearly unhinged and had no political affiliation. Many who had called conservatives out had themselves a long record of using inflammatory metaphors and similes. President Obama — unlike his sloganeering after the Skip Gates mess or the Major Hasan murdering — uncharacteristically kept quiet, processed public opinion, and than gave a fine speech, disavowing charges of a political connection to the tragedy. In Orwellian fashion, the New York Times now praised the new bipartisan civility without citing its own uncivil efforts a few hours earlier to politicize the shooting.

End of story? Hardly. Consider the present landscape and its logic.

We are all supposed to deny any connection between the Taxi Driver copy-cat Loughner and politics. But we are also supposed to use this occasion to insist on a new age of civility in which we all strive to curb the inflammatory speech that did not prompt Loughner at all.

Are we appalled by the repugnant efforts of an ideologue like Paul Krugman to capitalize on the killing of innocent people, while we nonetheless de facto accept his thesis that politics, as in right-wing politics, motivated Loughner, and thus must tone down? And once incivility is accepted as Loughner’s catalyst, who, after all, is going to protest a return to “civility”?

Why the weird disconnect?

#page#After the November 2010 liberal meltdown, the progressive community privately accepts a number of realities. 1) The American people believe that never-let-a-serious-crisis-go-to-waste massive deficit spending made a bottoming-out recession far worse, and they want a stop to the leftist agenda of Obamacare, takeovers, more borrowing, and larger government.

2) The right-wing response (Fox News, talk radio, the Internet, the Murdoch empire, etc.) to the old left-wing media monopolies of the eastern and western coastal daily newspapers, the three television networks, NPR, PBS, and the weekly news magazines is no longer a “response,” but is in many ways far more effective in influencing and channeling public opinion. 

#ad#3) A half century’s increase, under both parties, in the size of government, the debt, and entitlements is not merely unsustainable but now unwanted by the American people, who have caught on to the nexus between a redistributive technocratic overseeing class and a constituent underclass dependent on government subsidies. 

In other words, the calls for a general toning down of rhetoric translate far more into a toning down of both an effective media opposition and a rising political obstruction to the Obama agenda. “Can’t we all get along?” in essence means, “Can’t we all just keep quiet and keep going on with the big-government, agreed-on politics of the last fifty years?” 

Will that work? No.

First, Barack Obama is the most partisan politician since Richard Nixon. His brief Senate record, his health-care partisanship of 2009, his snickering amid audience applause after the “inadvertent” middle-fingering of Hillary Clinton, and his polarizing metaphorical speech (e.g., knives, guns, kicking ass, getting angry, getting in their face, hostage takers, trigger fingers, tearing up) all attest to that.

That Obama is a postracial mellifluent Chicago politician does not mean that he is not a Chicago politician. That he blasts the “fat cats,” the “stupidly” acting police, and the limb-lopping surgeons, or that his attorney general calls the American people “cowards,” is typical, not aberrant. For 2012, President Obama will have raised $1 billion in cash. He knows from 2008 (“cling to guns or religion,” “typical white person,” “gun to a knife fight”) that his own emotionalism and polarization both earn him cash and create the “them” against “us” (minorities, youth, gays, women) binaries that might draw attention away from an agenda that a majority simply does not want. Obama has always used polarizing politics, coupled with calls for bipartisanship, to great effect, and he surely — as we just saw again in October 2010 (“punish,” “backseat,” “enemies”) — cannot stop now.

Second, the country is center-right. A Watergate, a Perot candidacy, an insurgency in Iraq, or fear of a 1929-style meltdown can on occasion elect a Democratic president, usually one with a southern accent that suggests latent conservatism. In other words, crises, costly wars, and scandal are the necessary roads to power for contemporary liberalism. Hysterical speech in accentuating the climate of collapse pays dividends.

The Bush–Hitler/Brownshirt invective used by the likes of Robert Byrd, Al Gore, and John Glenn, or the Howard Dean “I hate Republicans and everything they stand for,” is rarely directly rejected by the liberal community since it really does pound away in insidious fashion in associating sensible conservative ideas with diabolical ogres who mouth them. Are we all to be in a sort of national Jimmy Carter mode, in which toothy smiles, a preacher’s voice, and biblical references sugarcoat incendiary talk (cf. the benevolent Carter’s description of Dick Cheney as a “militant,” the elder Bush as “effeminate,” Israel as an “apartheid” nation, George W. Bush as the “worst” president)?

Indeed, hours after President Obama’s calls for a new landscape of civility, Rep. Steven Cohen (D., Tenn.) was comparing Republican opponents of the health-care legislation to Nazis from the House floor, while Slate published a screed by Emily Bazelon on  “Why I Loathe My Connecticut Senator,” with serial expressions of how she “loathed” and “despised” Sen. Joe Lieberman.

In sum, the new age of civility is a political response to an acknowledged tragic event that was apolitical. It is intended to tone down growing political and media opposition to the status quo in Washington. And bipartisan friendly dialogue cannot and will not be adhered to by those now calling for its implementation, since divisive language often achieves what an unpersuasive ideology cannot. The hate-filled rhetoric of a Michael Moore (who sat in Jimmy Carter’s reserved box at the 2004 Democratic convention) or a Cindy Sheehan (the darling of the press and Democratic politicians at Camp Casey in 2005) was cruel, lunatic, and illogical — and helped demonize President Bush as some sort of monster rather than the center-right moderate who had pressed for No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, called for religious tolerance, warned against anti-Muslim violence after 9/11, won two bipartisan congressional authorizations for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and implemented the largest medical-relief plan for Africa in U.S. history.

So I predict that 18 months from now the president himself will still be calling for a new civility in the manner of his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention — and will once again adopt the sorts of over-the-top metaphors, similes, allusions, and rough-stuff politics that got him elected senator in 2004 and president in 2008, and pushed his health-care legislation through in 2009. If anything, the language of division will be shriller even than in 2010, as  the administration grasps that loaded language, coupled with calls for an end to rancor, must now do what a record of unpopular governance cannot.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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