A very mild-mannered and civilized friend remarked to me today that if he encountered anyone else on the Fifth and Park Avenue social circuit who blamed the Tucson shootings on the Tea Party, he would resort to violence. The stampede to blame this terrible incident on a political movement that appears to represent more people than the traditional Republican and Democratic parties is horrifying, though perhaps not surprising. The attempt of Paul Krugman (New York Times, January 10) to blame this shooting on what one saw “just by watching the crowds at McCain-Palin rallies” in the 2008 election campaign is the lowest and deepest excavation on public taste the Times has conducted since the 1985 headline about President Reagan’s planned visit to Bitburg, Germany: “Reagan Likens Nazi War Dead to Concentration Camp Victims.”
Krugman recounts that, as of last spring, “threats on congressmen were already up by 300 percent.” He continues: “Let’s not make a false pretense of balance.” (The identity of the author sets the mind at ease on that score.) The “eliminationist rhetoric,” you see, is “coming, overwhelmingly, from the right.” (He was presumably referring to incitements to violence and not remedies for irregularity.) Surging toward the finish line, Nobel laureate Krugman does the liberal pundit’s equivalent of the circus triple flip without the safety net: “The purveyors of hate have been treated with respect, even deference, by the GOP establishment.” Completing the aerobatics, he cites a former Bush speechwriter who concluded: “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.” I am not the most natural rescue party for Rupert Murdoch, but he is innocent of all of this and so are his commentators. They exploited the public’s discontent with the nauseating sanctimony and bias of the national media’s liberal monotone, and Fox and the talk-radio lions took away the audience. The liberal media establishment sowed, and they reaped.
Not since the liberal establishment tried to blame the assassination of John F. Kennedy on the far right, which necessitated a trashing of the theory that the (disgruntled Communist) Oswald acted alone and a rapprochement with the Oliver Stone exegesis — that it was a vast conspiracy of thousands on the right from Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover, to the Texas oil establishment, and down into the bowels of the Dallas Police Department — has an act of violence provoked such a fiercely partisan and utterly fatuous rush to judgment. This is a much more malignant version, from a much less exalted source, of the Nixon-Agnew effort in the midterm elections of 1970 to blame mob violence, and particularly the throwing of rocks at Nixon’s car in San Jose near the end of the campaign, on the Democratic establishment — accusing them of pandering to those “who hold a peace placard in one hand and a bomb or a brick in the other.”
We learn from Krugman that it’s “really up to GOP leaders [to] take a stand against eliminationist rhetoric,” since this is what causes violence against political figures, although, he concedes, “the shooter in Arizona appears to have been mentally troubled.” More to the point, and on the same page, was the estimable Ross Douthat’s citation of “the Democratic operative” who proposed “to deftly pin this on the tea partiers.” There was nothing deft about Krugman’s effort, and he dug under the Tea Party to detonate his explosives under the party of Lincoln, TR, Ike, and Reagan.
Apart from its sleaziness and absurdity, Krugman’s argument misses a key point. The problem isn’t eliminationist rhetoric on the right. No commentator with regular access to significant numbers of Americans of any media or political perspective calls for physical assault on any domestic political opponent. If Krugman thinks otherwise, he should put his money where his mouth is, since he is an economist, and see how much quality psychiatric attention he can get under Obamacare to deal with his hallucinations. Attempting to hang any act of psychotic violence like the Tucson shootings on people like John McCain and Sarah Palin is a more grievous and potentially dangerous assault on the right of all people to undisturbed lives than anything that emanates from those whom Krugman shamefully accuses of inciting violence.
But Krugman has, obviously without knowing it, stumbled into a true and worrisome fact of contemporary American life: There are more frequent threats on the persons of public officials than in earlier times. The reason for this is not the one adduced in Krugman’s demented partisan explanation, but rather the fact that the political class in general is serving the country so poorly. As I have written in this space before, it has failed on almost every major issue of the last 20 years except welfare reform and, up to a point, counterterrorism. This is not a partisan or ideological matter; it is not regional, and certainly is not sectarian. The political class outsourced scores of millions of jobs while admitting 15 or more million unskilled, under-documented foreigners and ignored the implications of this conduct. It allowed the country to rack up $800 billion annual current-account deficits for years with no end nor any remedial action in sight. It urged, legislated, and ordered the issuance of trillions of dollars of worthless debt, supposedly to promote family homeownership — though the real beneficiaries were less frequent subjects of Norman Rockwell illustrations — and the political class floundered badly and waffles yet, over what to do about it.
The political class has done nothing to alleviate a dependence on foreign oil that makes the U.S. a co-combatant on each side of the War on Terror because of its contribution to the wealth of petroleum-exporting states that finance Muslim extremism. The political class has mired almost the entire conventional-ground-forces military capability of the United States in an unremitting area among ungrateful people for almost a decade at a cost of trillions of dollars, over 5,000 American servicemen’s lives, and tens of thousands of American casualties. The political class has presided over a shocking deterioration of the education standards of the country, done nothing to address the excessive cost and uneven availability of medical care, and the descent of the justice system into a racket in which the whole system of checks and balances is threatened by a rogue prosecutocracy that mindlessly or maliciously prosecutes whomever it wishes and has so deformed the Bill of Rights that it is successful 95 percent of the time. (There are 47 million Americans with a criminal record, and the U.S. has six to twelve times as many incarcerated people as other prosperous and advanced democracies such as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom.) The decline of the influence and prestige and economic and moral strength of the United States in the world in the last 20 years has been precipitous. The politicians have failed, the system is failing, the people don’t like it, and, at some point, some of the crazy ones become violent.
The Democrats, presumably including the omni-whining Krugman, are right to denounce the reading of the Constitution in the House of Representatives as juvenile theatrics, because most legislators of both parties and all levels of government have allowed the Constitution to be deformed and abused. The answer to misgovernment is not violence and all responsible people should do everything possible to discourage any consideration of violence. But the political class has failed, and abrupt tidal changes of office-holders — 1992, 1994, 2002, 2008, and probably 2010 – aren’t improving standards of public service. If the system isn’t working changing the rhetoric won’t help, any more than dismissing Krugman as a Times columnist would. The rate of violent crime is generally declining. Deranged people need treatment, and the whole country needs better government. It’s conceptually quite simple.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its original posting.