For liberals and progressives, one of the most baffling — and indeed also infuriating — aspects of the response of conservatives like Bill O’Reilly and Michelle Malkin to the recent murders by right wing extremists is the way that — in the space of just a few paragraphs — they manage to shift the discussion away from the events themselves back into an attack on liberals and progressives for “exploiting” the situation.
Rather than interpreting the actions of violent extremists as requiring a reconsideration of their own rhetoric and positions, for many conservative commentators the violent acts become instead the basis for renewed descriptions of conservatives as the innocent and aggrieved victims of liberal injustice and slander.
It is worth taking a moment to dissect the internal structure of this particular rhetorical and psychological line of argument because it leads to a somewhat counterintuitive strategy for responding to it.
Here, in outline, is the way the argument above is developed by conservative commentators:
1. We conservatives know perfectly well that we are not all homicidal maniacs. Murder is a terrible act that no sane person approves. Therefore, to suggest that the acts of isolated, mentally ill criminals should somehow reflect on all of us conservatives is deeply unfair.
2. The truth is that the acts of deranged extremist individuals do not further the conservative cause. On the contrary, they inflict catastrophic damage on it by allowing our opponents to paint all of us as mentally unstable. No sane conservative – in fact, not even the majority of white supremacists – really believe that lurid murders actually help the larger cause.
3. As a result, for liberals and progressives to attack conservatives as somehow responsible for the acts of one or two isolated maniacs is utterly unfair. It is, in fact, a transparently cynical attempt to exploit the tragedy. That liberals actually stoop to use such tactics is thus vile and unforgivable.
By this train of logic it becomes possible for the commentator to end up – often only 30 or 45 seconds after beginning – delivering an angry attack on liberals and an impassioned depiction of conservatives as the innocent victims of unjust persecution. The sheer audacity of the strategy leaves liberals aghast and fuming.
In fact, to liberals and progressives, this line of argument appears so obviously like a cynical debater’s trick aimed at misdirecting the attention of the audience that the immediate reaction is to adamantly reassert the original accusations.
But note what happens psychologically when this is done:
1. The audience of an O’Reilly or Malkin knows with absolute certainty that they personally as individuals absolutely do not approve of murder. They therefore find the remaining steps in the conservative argument logical and convincing.
2. In contrast, liberal arguments that begin with the premise that there is a relationship between the acts of violent extremists and the opinions expressed by O’Reilly and Malkin are not only rejected – they actually become proof of the conservative charge that liberal critics are unfair and unjust. Thus, paradoxically, instead of refuting the conservative narrative, arguments of this type are absorbed into it and actually validate and become evidence for it.
The alternative, more effective strategy is to appeal to what Drew Westen calls people’s “better angels.” In talking to the audiences of commentators like O’Reilly and Malkin, liberals and progressives should begin by immediately reassuring these audiences that liberals and progressives emphatically do not believe that the audience in any way actually condones violent acts. Quite the contrary, it is precisely because they do not approve of violence that they should want to show their rejection of violent acts by joining together with all reasonable Americans in supporting President Obama’s call for a new tolerance and civility in political discourse. The acts of violent madmen should make all decent Americans want to commit themselves even more firmly to seeking common ground with, and rejecting demonization of, other Americans with whom they may disagree.
Notice what this does:
1. It deprives the conservative narrative of the “we are being unfairly smeared” argument and keeps the focus on the evil of the violent acts themselves. (This, it should be noted, is most emphatically not the topic upon which the conservative commentators wish to linger).
2. It places the O’Reilly’s and Malkins’ of the world in the position of having to either directly endorse or reject Obama’s call for greater civility and tolerance (This, it should be noted, is most emphatically not the question they want to debate).
It requires a certain degree of discipline to argue along these lines when, on an emotional level, many people’s primary desire at times like these is to express outrage and assign blame.
The main purpose of political debate, however, is not to provide therapeutic outlet for the debater, but to win the struggle to convince other Americans. For this purpose, the strategy of “appealing to people’s better angels” will invariably prove far more productive than the more viscerally satisfying alternative.