Is It Sarah Palin’s Fault? No, but…

After the incident in Tucson last week, there was a lot of talk partially blaming Sarah Palin (among others) for the political climate contributing to the incident. Now, they did not blame her for the incident, but by poisoning the tone of political debate in the United States she is said to have contributed strongly to the situation. This purportedly happened because of her use of violent metaphors for political talk. The ridiculous nature of this accusation soon became apparent, as these metaphors are quite common in American dialogue in general. In political dialogue they have been widely used as well, by Democrats as well as Republicans. I was caught up in blaming her for a bit, maybe a couple of days. I was wrong for the same reasons everyone else was wrong: these metaphors are not the problem, and they’re so pervasive in American society that blaming Sarah Palin for using them is ridiculous. Further, the attacker had no political motivations, which knocked the wind out of these accusations.

However, I think these accusations are close to true, but the focus has been on the wrong rhetoric.The rhetoric of many Republicans—and I do think it much more of a problem among Republicans than Democrats[1]—gives the impression that any time Democrats become dominant it is an existential threat to the Union. It’s frequently portrayed as, not a time in which many poor decisions will be made, but an honest to God threat to the survival of the United States. Here are a few examples. I remember Election night in 1996, and the Republicans around me (I was in a Laundromat) said things like “If Clinton wins again, I’m going to Canada.” These people genuinely thought he was ruining the country. In retrospect this was ridiculous: Clinton was hardly a liberal President.

When Kerry ran in 2004, he was accused of being the most liberal member of the Senate. This is repeated about every Democratic candidate. It’s become quite predictable, actually. Americans are deathly afraid of socialism, and the use of the word is the kiss of death rhetorically. It works well. Some called Kerry a socialist, and the accusation that he was “the most liberal (which in the common mind means socialist) Senator” was thrown around.

The way people have talked about President Obama barely needs to be mentioned, so let’s just talk about the political tone lately. Glenn Beck went through a phase (I hear he’s calming down a bit lately) in which he connected anything Democrats were interested in to the Nazi Party. World Net Daily feeds the Birthers nonsense. Discussion of the Health Bill gives the impression that it is socialism, which will destroy America. This is in spite of the obvious fact that Republicans proposed almost the exact same program fifteen years ago. Any time the 2nd Amendment is discussed, many on the Right remind their listeners that the 2nd Amendment is intended to protect us from Government tyranny, which may show up at any time. Didn’t the Nazis take away guns before they went nuts? Mmhm…what do you think these “gun control” laws are really aimed at? Oh, and let’s not forget the completely fictional death panels. Democrats are going to turn America into Logan’s Run, killing all the old people. All of this contributes to this sense that the country is falling apart. All of these ideas are ridiculous. It’s reasonable to disagree about policy, but it’s not reasonable to invent nonsense and stoke fears like this for political points.

Many conservatives who love America are swayed by these ideas. These Americans then conclude the country is nearing collapse. For people who think like this, there is an existential threat to the country they love, which also means an existential threat to themselves.

However, this does highlight a serious problem in our dialogue. Congressional approval ratings are minute, and this is partially because of this sort of dialogue. Further, it makes it very difficult to have reasonable discussions. Politics should be, at least partially, about policy. It isn’t anymore. The problems with this are widely discussed. Encouragingly, there seems to be a bit of progress on this lately.

I’m pretty sensitive to the possibility that I’m biased. After all, I’m a Democrat now, and so it stands to reason I’ll be more sensitive to rhetoric which disagrees with me. There’s almost certainly some truth to this, but I don’t think the things I’m missing are strong enough to ruin this basic theory. I thought the same thing when my feelings were drastically different, when I was voting for President Bush (twice).

Rhetoric doesn’t make people do certain things, but as I’ve discussed in my series on Christian Objectivity, it does shape their minds. People who are in control of rhetoric create ideas, they limit the ideas their hearers can think. This isn’t touchy-feely nonsense: this stuff matters.

What am I missing?

[1] This is for a few reasons. One, I came to this conclusion when I was a Republican. In fact, it’s partially this conclusion that led me to the Democratic Party. Two, Republicans have a much more effective talking point memo which strengthens their rhetorical impact. That means that every day, Republican politicians and many media figures get a memo and talk about the same things in the same way that day. So when some extreme idea is on that memo, like the death panels were, it is going to be hammered into the minds of millions and millions of Americans. Democrats don’t have anything like that, at least nothing that works. Third, Conservatives have effective talk radio, and famously, liberals have no comparable talk radio. In fact, basically they have Keith Olbermann for vitriol. Occasionally one can hear a Democrat making implying a Republican will destroy the country, but this is, it seems to me, quite rare. Moveon.org pulled that stunt a few times under Pres. Bush, and…that’s all I can think of. Even then, I might argue that a closer look at their accusations will reveal something disrespectful and wrong, but levels of magnitude below what is said about whatever Democrat is President. It is one thing to say a President made up a reason to attack a country, and quite another to say a President has a plan to murder millions of elderly Americans. Back to Article

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  1. February 2nd, 2012

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