Our Political Rhetoric Isn’t Too Violent, It’s Too Dumb

You could feel the collective cringe pass through atmosphere long before Pima County Sherrif Clarence Dupnik condemned the level of hostility in political rhetoric surrounding the Arizona assassination this weekend. It hardly took any finger-pointing or moralizing–though plenty of that followed quickly after the event–for the entire nation to become embarrassed about our political culture. Lest anyone think the shame was partisanly felt, there was more than enough bad behavior on all sides.

Over the weekend, the House leadership tacitly confirmed their own shame by postponing the vote on repealing healthcare reform. Better to go dark than risk the ritual display of histrionics which was a smart political move. One that was easily accomplished under the cover of the raging debate over whether the political climate played a role in Jared Loughner’s deranged plotting.

That debate is both legitimate and fairly interesting. Jack Shafer objected to Sherrif Dupnik’s attempt to chill partisan rhetoric which has a long history in the US of extreme positions. Howard Kurtz ham-handedly tried to dismiss the idea that any connection exists between the political vocabulary and acts of the unstable. (Though all he seemed to do was offer a reminder of how many times people have gone off following the precepts of reckless bloviators.) Kurt Anderson dredged up a long ago New York Magazine story by Jacob Weisberg about Oklahoma City and the connection to right-wing rhetoric.  James Fallows and George Packer offered two of the more tempered and thoughtful reflections on the nature of political violence.

The upshot of all of this is less about culpability and more about looking at a political position again in light of the horrendous violence. Late Sunday night, a CNN anchor interviewed an unrepentant Libertarian radio-show host, Neal Boortz. The conversation followed a predictable pattern. Even if you don’t see Boortz as a parody of himself, watching the interview reminds us too quickly that ideologues are bores. They bring all discussions back to their one big idea. Forget whether you agree with that idea. The damage is done when the bores distract from thinking about the topic at hand.

The bigger issue with the Tea Party and Sarah Palin is not whether they bear responsibility for the deaths in Arizona. (They don’t, by the way. But they should be ashamed of themselves.) The problem is the way they’ve gummed up the political works with their simple-minded and contradictory view of political economy.

A good illustration of this comes from The Economist’s ace writer, Greg Ip, who happened to be attending the American Economics Association annual meeting at the same time that the shootings in Arizona took place. Ip is trying to make sense of the real causes of the economic crisis:

Many of the economists here are quite perplexed at the longevity of poor conditions in parts of the American economy. […] This whole big narrative, when you step back and look at it, is a pretty complicated story. And it’s not complete. […] But I do think that we can say a few key things about the way that the crisis developed. One is that it had, at its heart, a broad structural transformation in the global economy that led to an uncomfortable and sustained stagnation in the quality of life of many developed nation workers. And governments have not nearly begun addressing the structural factors contributing to this issue.

[…] And a [another] issue is that the economics profession has not, as it almost certainly assumed that it had, resolved the question of how policymakers should react in a Depression-economics world. Many of the fiscal and monetary policy questions, most of which have a significant political economy aspect, that economists thought were resolved or imagined too unimportant to worry about, are now the subject of intense debate. And while the questions posed by the recent crisis are unlikely to emerge all that often, when they do it is extremely uncomfortable when no clear answers are forthcoming.

No one expects our politicians to have full-blown discussion of how to make policy in a Depression-economics world. But it is their job to translate that debate into a few key positions, expound upon them, defend them and adapt them. Then voters can validate or reject those positions.

Looking at our political climate, can anyone honestly say that we’re groping our way toward a better understanding of the causes of the crisis and the policy response to it?

Politics is messy–and often silly–but the political debate that was scheduled for this week was less about providing an alternative program of reforms to address our troubled economy than with rallying an increasingly irrational base.

Healthcare reform is, at bottom, a response to the economic crisis. It is an attempt to deal with American competitiveness as much as a social welfare program. It might be the right approach to structural reform. It might not be the right way to reform healthcare. But the Tea Party response to it does nothing to articulate an alternative set of answers to Ip’s questions. Therein lies the debasement of our politics.

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