American politics is very familiar with “climate of hate” arguments, and they almost always originate on the left.
Following the killing of John F. Kennedy at Dealey Plaza, many liberals presumed that Dallas had incubated what must have been a right-wing assassin, and Big D was quickly tagged with the sobriquet “City of Hate,” which endured long after it was revealed that Lee Harvey Oswald was very much a communist. The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was blamed by then-president Bill Clinton on “loud and angry voices” on “the airwaves in America”—read: Rush Limbaugh—while one less explicit professor compared conservative radio hosts to Rwandan Hutu power broadcasters. More recently, apolitical whack job Jared Loughner’s shooting of Gabrielle Giffords was tied to a graphic published by Sarah Palin’s PAC that plastered crosshairs on a map of congressional districts.
The New York Times somehow managed to dredge up that last one in a ludicrous editorial about Tuesday’s shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise. But it isn’t just the left now: conservatives are getting in on this game, too, enabled by news that James Hodgkinson, the man who shot Scalise, was a Bernie Sanders fan who despised Donald Trump. Twitter set to work, unearthing every comment ever made by a Democrat that could be construed as violent. ‘See?’ they said. ‘Smash-mouth progressives are fueling rage toward Republicans.’
Yes, it’s true that Sanders once instructed his followers, “You should be angry. Take your anger out on the right people.” It’s also true that any sane, rational, levelheaded person would know he was exhorting political action and not violence. It takes a soul troubled by forces more daunting than politics to filter those words into “head to a baseball diamond and start shooting.” The leap from abstract anger to personal bloodletting is one that can only be made by a demented mind.
Such minds exist, of course, and we would be wise to consider the effects our words can have on them. Sarah Palin did not inspire Loughner to shoot Giffords, but there was probably a way for her PAC to make its point without resorting to crosshairs. Bernie Sanders is not responsible for the violence of his most febrile adherent, but he might think twice in the future before using the words that he did. That’s hardly speech policing; it’s just responsible politicking.
But we also can’t let the aberrant loons exercise veto control over our discourse. In the age of Trump, liberals are angry and have a right to peacefully and responsibly vocalize that anger, just as tea partiers did under Barack Obama. In this prairie-fire country of ours, that rhetoric will occasionally touch the extremes, just as it did after the Boston Massacre and before the Election of 1800 and during the tilt-a-whirl of the late 1800s that claimed President James Garfield among many other lives. Indeed, if anything, our politics have become more substantive and less personality-based since then; we’re more likely to tackle the ball of Obamacare or the travel ban rather than the man carrying it.
The solution, then, is to breathe, understand we’ve been here before, and try to flesh out our political opponents with human faces. The one feature of our discourse today that is genuinely novel is social media, especially Twitter, which reduces everyone to boxes on a feed, depersonalizing them and turning them into something to be destroyed rather than engaged with. Reenter the real world, vanish away the stupid boxes, and even the most heinous Birther or Russia conspiracy theorist has a story to tell, and often a relatable one. There’s a reason our politics was steadier back when journalists went out to the bar after work rather than snickering like Beavis and Butthead about some inane quip they just made on Hootsuite.
We need to rediscover how to be biting and exasperated rather than dehumanizing and addicted to fury. We also need to consider these questions without milking them for partisan gain. Remember, conservatives, that for every violent remark made by some loser in a black mask, there’s Glenn Beck joking about dripping poison into Nancy Pelosi’s wine and Donald Trump rambling that “Second Amendment people” could, you know, do something if Hillary Clinton was elected. The “climate of hate” is not uniquely humid right now; it is also not the exclusive property of one side.