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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

After Tucson

The “debate” over the alleged connection between right-wing rhetoric and the shooting spree in Tucson this weekend isn’t turning into much of a debate at all. As evidence mounts about the scrambled thinking of mass murderer Jared Loughner, the few liberal voices willing to draw a direct connection between right-wing demonization of target Gabrielle Giffords and the shootings have grown even more sparse. This hasn’t, of course, kept conservatives from seizing on such talk to play the victim, bitterly complaining about a media/liberal conspiracy to “politicize” the tragedy and create a “blood libel” against the poor, innocent Right.
So no one should expect conservatives to do much soul-searching in the wake of this event, and that’s too bad; this is a particular moment in American history when they could use some. For all their attacks on “arrogant elites,” too many of today’s conservatives consider their views sancrosanct or self-evidently correct. To put it bluntly, it has become common on the Right to treat conservative policy prescriptions as exempt from the normal procedures of democracy because they reflect the preferences of God, the Founding Fathers, or Real Americans. Indeed, the essence of the Tea Party Movement, which dominates the GOP from top to bottom, is the belief that by advancing such quotidian centrist policies as a managed-competition health care system or a market-based cap-and-trade device, Democrats are not simply wrong, but are violating permanent and never-to-be-amended guarantees of low taxes, small government, and laissez-faire capitalism. That point of view helps explain the spluttering rage of people like Glenn Beck and his most devoted fans, who really do seem to believe their “fundamental liberties” include the right to enrich themselves limitlessly and to be exempt from any collective responsibilities, and that mildly redistributive and exceptionally traditional practices like progressive taxation or unemployment insurance represent a totalitarianism that must resisted by any means necessary.
The growing refusal on the Right to accept the legitimacy of political competition does indeed promote a poor climate for civility in politics. But that by no means makes conservatives responsible for acts of violence against the politicians they “target,” so long as they systematically eschew violence.
But there’s one exception that needs to be noted right now: The talk of “Second Amendment remedies,” made famous by 2010 Senate candidate Sharron Angle but a hardy perennial of hardcore conservative rhetoric for years, really does need to stop. It reflects the belief that the Second Amendment is not only a permanent guarantor of unlimited personal firearms possession, and inviolable for all times, but is in fact the most important provision of the Constitution, the “crown jewel” of the Bill of Rights. Why? Well, beneath lots of mealy-mouthed talk about widespread gun ownership being a bulwark against tyranny, the idea is that it may become necessary at some point for right-thinking citizens to undertake the violent overthrow of the government on behalf of some higher law. That’s what “second amendment remedies” refers to, and you can only imagine what kind of reaction this thinking would get if it were being articulated not by middle-class white property-owners but by, say, Islamic jihadis.
The problem is, of course, that crazy people may well take advantage of an ideology that holds we should all stockpile shooting irons in case we decide at some point to stop doffing our hats to those in authority and instead consider them jack-booted thugs who need killing. Perhaps quasi-universal private gun ownership is a good thing on balance, but let’s stop encouraging Americans to think that aiming guns at cops or elected officials or our political opponents is ever a good thing, even in theory.
More generally, everyone in American politics, left or right, needs to guard against use of the language of violence and warfare, however metaphorically. Bad things happen in war zones, including most notably the slaughter of innocents.

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