"Promote violence? Us? What about you?"
The political conversation since the Tucson massacre has been dominated by a ferocious attack and counter-attack, as right and left deploy competing narratives of victimhood. Sarah Palin’s gun-sights map is matched by the Democratic Senatorial Committee’s 2004 bullseye map. Did a Tea Partier step on a protester’s head at a Rand Paul rally? What about the Tea Partier who was allegedly knocked over by union guys at a town hall in St. Louis?
You may find this competition for supreme victimhood annoying and ultimately useless. Yet there are some vital truths embedded in the conversation.
Truth 1: It's important to be clear about what the problem is. The problem is not military metaphors. It's not Glenn Beck joking about poisoning Nancy Pelosi's wine or Paul Krugman hanging Joe Lieberman in effigy at a party.
The problem is, rather, the construction of paranoid narratives that might justify violence to a violent-minded person. When scruffy protesters drew swastikas on photographs of President George W. Bush, that was obnoxious. It was not likely to incite anyone. But when eminent persons argued on the public airwaves that the United States had been lied into a frustrating war in Iraq by a cabal of Jewish conspirators? That’s a very different matter.
Likewise, it's grossly ill mannered for a member of the House to shout "You lie!" at a president during a State of the Union address. Yet the republic staggered on somehow. What does do damage to the fabric of democracy is the charge made by prominent conservative broadcasters that the president is deliberately wrecking the U.S. economy to advance his scheme to overthrow the constitution and transform the nation into a Marxist or Leninist or even Maoist tyranny.
Truth 2: The "out" party is always more poorly behaved than the "in" party. When liberals congratulate themselves for acting more seriously and soberly than conservatives during the past two years, they are judging themselves against an incorrect benchmark. The standard of comparison is not how liberals are behaving in 2010, when they have a president to defend. The standard of comparison is how they behaved in 2005, when they had a president to attack.
Again, the complaint is not that a columnist might devote a whole column to how much he detests the president's personality. If you feel compelled to say so, be my guest. The complaint is that opposition parties mobilize their supporters into furious paranoid frenzies that render reasonable compromise impossible.
President Obama made this point very well in his question-and-answer session with House Republicans last January: "[I]f the way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives, what happens is you guys then don't have a lot of room to negotiate with me. I mean, the fact of the matter is that many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party. You've given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you've been telling your constituents is, 'This guy's doing all kinds of crazy stuff that's going to destroy America.' … It's not just on your side, by the way. It's — it's on our side as well. This is part of what's happened in our politics, where we demonize the other side so much that when it comes to actually getting things done, it becomes tough to do."
Truth 3: It's worse.
It's worse today under Obama than it was under George W. Bush, worse under Bush than under Bill Clinton, worse under Clinton than under Ronald Reagan.
I think I can see four reasons for the worsening. First, changes in technology. The rise of cable, the opening of the AM dial to talk as music migrated to FM, the advent of the Internet, and now the invention of new social media have together created important and lucrative niche markets for radical political messaging.
Second, changes in lifestyle. Bill Bishop observes in his important book "The Big Sort," that in 2004, half the population of the United States lived in a county that voted for either Bush or John Kerry by a margin of 20 points or more. In 1976, only one-fifth of Americans lived in a "landslide county." As we cluster with like-minded people — and spatially segregate from people who think differently — we become more mistrustful of our political opponents.
Third, changes in political organization. More and more of our politicians are self-motivated political entrepreneurs, who raise their money through national networks — and are held to account by those networks. It becomes less important to keep everybody in your district happy than to keep happy the national ideological lobbies that pull members to the left or right.
Fourth — and above all — the frustrations of more than a decade of poor governance. Since 1999, Americans have endured (among other setbacks):
• The huge losses for small savers inflicted by the collapse of the internet bubble
• The failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks
• Two prolonged and inconclusive wars stagnating incomes even during the 2003-2007 economic expansion
• The mishandling of Hurricane Katrina
• An influx of millions of illegal immigrants with government seeming either unable or unwilling to stop it
• Financial crisis and bank bailouts
• An $800 billion stimulus that has not made any difference to unemployment as far as most people can see
No surprise that voters have lost confidence in their government — and that they are receptive to radical explanations of their government’s malperformance. And precisely because the voters are so receptive, it becomes even more important that people in positions of responsibility refrain from inciting anger and exploiting fear for political and financial gain. But unfortunately, thus far the incentives all tug the other way.