By A.B. Stoddard - 01/12/11 11:37 PM EST
The measured voices from both parties who have called for a bipartisan cooling of the heated rhetoric have been drowned out by those on the outer wings working to one-up each other. On the left, columnist Paul Krugman wrote that he’d predicted, from the McCain-Palin rallies of 2008, that the same “upsurge in political hatred” that had followed Bill Clinton into the presidency and led to the Oklahoma City bombing would produce violence once again with Barack Obama in the White House. The toxic rhetoric, Krugman wrote, is coming “overwhelmingly from the right,” and it is up to GOP leaders to accept responsibility and “take a stand against eliminationist rhetoric.” On the right, radio host Rush Limbaugh said “the desperate hope that the losers in November of 2010 had was that they could revitalize their political fortunes because of this unfortunate shooting of a congresswoman in Arizona.” Limbaugh added, “the left is depraved, empty and without political substance whatsoever,” and “openly wishes for such disaster in order to profit from it.”
The shootings in Arizona did not result from our ugly, often brutal political debate. The evil perpetrated by Jared Lee Loughner — an incoherent, deranged madman who didn’t know right from left — cannot be blamed on any showmen in either party guilty of reckless rhetoric, from Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) to former Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.). It’s not the fault of Palin and her map of targeted districts any more than it is the fault of the “Fire Pelosi” bus tour Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele undertook during the midterm campaign last year.
But so what ? Do we need this? Incendiary language has replaced the canes and guns elected officials routinely brought to the chamber and used at the seat of government in the 1800s. It is no longer enough to disagree; in today’s climate, politicians and activists must delegitimize their opponents. There isn’t a chance we can solve grave problems when spokesmen for the extremes accuse the other side of fostering or attempting to profit from murder.
We haven’t heard enough people step up this week to laud public servants like Giffords, who strengthen the system with consensus and centrist policies, or to affirm the value of a lawmaker, like Giffords, who as a Democrat managed to be reelected in a Republican district during a Republican wave with a proven record of political independence and pragmatism.
And we haven’t heard enough people ask why Loughner could have passed a federal background check to purchase a gun. How we can protect Americans congregating in a grocery store parking lot to constructively engage in their democracy if we can’t protect the professor who feared Loughner would one day bring a gun to class and shoot as she turned her back to face the board?
Don’t expect any change from the left or right wing. The purveyors of polarization aren’t likely to heed the counsel of the new House Speaker, John Boehner (R-Ohio), who last week urged members to disagree without being disagreeable and to move forward “humble in our demeanor and steady in our principles.” But let’s hope that at least the members of the House of Representatives, Democrat and Republican, follow his example. Giffords always has.
Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.