Right versus Left Extremists
January 13, 2011 7 Comments
I like Michael Kinsley. He’s liberal, but he writes well, and you see a perpetual thoughtfulness, a person sincerely trying to get it right. So I end up disagreeing with much of what he concludes, but respecting the route he takes to his conclusions.
His recent column in Politico offers a close-up view of the Tucson tragedy, and veers off to a regrettable comparison of right-wing and left-wing extremists.
It seems — in fact, it seems obvious — that the situation is not balanced. Extremists on the right are more responsible for the poisonous ideological atmosphere than extremists on the left, whoever they may be. And extremists on the left have a lot less influence on nonextremists on the left than extremists on the right have on right-wing moderates. Sure, NPR, despite denials, tilts to the left. But not the way Fox News tilts toward the right. Rachel Maddow is no Glenn Beck.
I get how Kinsley got there — in this environment of Democrats controlling nearly all the organs of federal power in Washington DC. But I profoundly disagree with his conclusion.
Ideologies out of power always sound harsher than ideologies in power. Ideologies in power have the luxury of urging civility and restraint, while ideologies out of power wish most intensely to become the ideologies in power so that they have the luxury of urging civility and restraint. In that narrow sense, Kinsley may be right, today, but he forgets the environment yesterday. And I have seen this wishful forgetfulness among many on the left.
I believe the right was remarkably civilized in the face of Democratic party control, from 2008 through 2010, of every organ of federal power. And the Democrats exercised that power most enthusiastically and successfully. Indeed, few Americans really know how robustly the Democrats have changed the legislative and regulatory landscape of our nation.
I think that change is a net negative, but that’s not my point here. I’m focused on Kinsley’s conclusion that extremists on the right are somehow more poisonous and have more mainstream influence.
The least attractive, least influential, most reviled sensibility in America is the extreme right. And that is a credit to the evolution of our collective political sensibility because it has not always been so. At its peak, Ku Klux Klan membership exceeded four million and comprised 20% of the adult white male population, commonly in Southern states, but historically more concentrated in Midwestern states. Americans of good will fought back, and eventually the Klan was broken. Conservatives today are very different than conservatives 50, 60 or 70 years ago.
As a people, thankfully, we do not hesitate to condemn racism or decry injustice when we see it. But yes, we still have fringes, left and right, and we still have relatively mainstream people influenced by fringes. The recent Tucson tragedy has reinvigorated a debate about the relative nastiness of our fringes. At one level, arguing about the relative nastiness of our fringes is an enormous opportunity cost — how much more productive to discuss what we have in common among mainstream left and right Americans?
But the debate is nevertheless useful political discourse, hence my commendation to Kinsley, because it helps us to understand ourselves, our politics, and our history a little better — and these are all sorely needed understandings.
Kinsley concludes, simply because it “seems obvious,” that “extremists on the right are more responsible for the poisonous ideological atmosphere than extremists on the left.” Similarly, many liberal commentators and citizen debaters responding to the Tucson tragedy have weighed in with excoriations of even the mainstream right — forever tarred in their imagination with excesses of right-wing extremism. And most interestingly, many of these liberal commentators and citizen debaters insist that the left has never been so incendiary, at least not since the 1960s.
And that assumption warrants some recent history — very recent history — history that might hopefully cause all of us to hang our heads just a little and acknowledge, from the right and the left, that rightwing and leftwing rhetoric both get reckless, and it is our collective responsibility not only to keep the dialogue civil, but to stay vigilant about reckless rhetoric whenever we see it.
The left really hated George W. Bush. Really hated. Jonathan Chait, in The New Republic, opened an editorial with, “I hate President George W. Bush. There, I said it.” (Chait, by the way, is one of the liberals who wrote honorably and with good will in the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy.) The mainstream left tried to make a rational case for hatred of George W. Bush. A little further to the left, our point in this discussion of relative extremism, it was a different story.
Please watch this video, featuring leftists demonizing George Bush, and one leftist saying “we’ll have to come out and kill somebody I guess.”
No current leftist will avow the wackos in the video — but we’re talking about relative extremism, hoping merely to get leftists to acknowledge that they have wackos who speak with virulence, violence, and vileness. Only if leftists acknowledge this do we get to a point of forging common mainstream ground and finding the political courage to speak with mutual respect.
And there’s this smorgasbord of Bush=Hitler comparisons. So far, to my knowledge, no Republican member of Congress has compared Obama to Hitler. A Democratic member of Congress did compare Bush to Hitler.
And here are comparative images from left and right rallies in March 2010 — after Democrats had taken over everything.
Now, here’s an image to shame us all, with a red bullet hole in the President’s head.
And some more images… Noteworthy poster: “Kill terrorists. Bomb there house. Kill Bush. Bomb his f—in house.”
And by the way, liberal friends, I get the distaste for Sarah Palin. Am not a big fan myself — but my god she commands my respect for surviving the horrible vileness directed at her.
That stuff about Sarah doing cross-hairs on Democratic districts? Please. Democrats did exactly the same thing. Martial metaphors have been par for the course in political campaigns since the invention of politics. And it may be that no living politician has received more death threats than Sarah Palin — and that’s today people. Not “the Sixties.”
Liberals understandably wince at comparisons of them to Hitler and violent politics. I wince too. Say it my friends. See some of the vile speech of the left and call it vile so that we can get on the same page. Michael Kinsley says the right is more incendiary. I say we’re going nowhere until right and left both acknowledge the nastiness they both produce.