Itâ€™s important to be clear here about the nature of our sickness. Itâ€™s not a general lack of â€œcivility,â€ the favorite term of pundits who want to wish away fundamental policy disagreements. Politeness may be a virtue, but thereâ€™s a big difference between bad manners and calls, explicit or implicit, for violence; insults arenâ€™t the same as incitement.
The point is that thereâ€™s room in a democracy for people who ridicule and denounce those who disagree with them; there isnâ€™t any place for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary.
And itâ€™s the saturation of our political discourse â€” and especially our airwaves â€” with eliminationist rhetoric that lies behind the rising tide of violence.
Whereâ€™s that toxic rhetoric coming from? Letâ€™s not make a false pretense of balance: itâ€™s coming, overwhelmingly, from the right. Itâ€™s hard to imagine a Democratic member of Congress urging constituents to be â€œarmed and dangerousâ€ without being ostracized; but Representative Michele Bachmann, who did just that, is a rising star in the G.O.P.
And thereâ€™s a huge contrast in the media. Listen to Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann, and youâ€™ll hear a lot of caustic remarks and mockery aimed at Republicans. But you wonâ€™t hear jokes about shooting government officials or beheading a journalist at The Washington Post. Listen to Glenn Beck or Bill Oâ€™Reilly, and you will.
Of course, the likes of Mr. Beck and Mr. Oâ€™Reilly are responding to popular demand. Citizens of other democracies may marvel at the American psyche, at the way efforts by mildly liberal presidents to expand health coverage are met with cries of tyranny and talk of armed resistance. Still, thatâ€™s what happens whenever a Democrat occupies the White House, and thereâ€™s a market for anyone willing to stoke that anger.
But even if hate is what many want to hear, that doesnâ€™t excuse those who pander to that desire. They should be shunned by all decent people.
He expands on the underlying fuel for the hatred in Fridayâ€™s column
One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state â€” a private-enterprise economy, but one in which societyâ€™s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net â€” morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. Itâ€™s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.
The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. Thatâ€™s what lies behind the modern rightâ€™s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.
Thereâ€™s no middle ground between these views. One side saw health reform, with its subsidized extension of coverage to the uninsured, as fulfilling a moral imperative: wealthy nations, it believed, have an obligation to provide all their citizens with essential care. The other side saw the same reform as a moral outrage, an assault on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose.
This deep divide in American political morality â€” for thatâ€™s what it amounts to â€” is a relatively recent development. Commentators who pine for the days of civility and bipartisanship are, whether they realize it or not, pining for the days when the Republican Party accepted the legitimacy of the welfare state, and was even willing to contemplate expanding it. As many analysts have noted, the Obama health reform â€” whose passage was met with vandalism and death threats against members of Congress â€” was modeled on Republican plans from the 1990s.
But that was then. Todayâ€™s G.O.P. sees much of what the modern federal government does as illegitimate; todayâ€™s Democratic Party does not. When people talk about partisan differences, they often seem to be implying that these differences are petty, matters that could be resolved with a bit of good will. But what weâ€™re talking about here is a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.