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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

On Calling Out Republicans for Political Terrorism, Nihilism and Sabotage

Chris Matthews raised some eyebrows on MSNBC last night, when he accused Sen. Ted Cruz of “political terrorism,” provoking an argument with McCain’s senior campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, who said, in essence, it’s a term that should be reserved for those who actually try to kill their adversaries. Schmidt preferred “demagogue” and “irresponsible.”
In my view they were both right. Matthews was correct in saying that much of the behavior of key GOP leaders is intentionally destructive and designed to paralyze government into dysfunction and chaos. That meets some of the requirements of terrorism. But Schmidt is also right in saying that applying the inflammatory term to political dialogue implicitly trivializes the damage that murderous political terrorists have done worldwide.
Credit Matthews with a perceptive observation. Current Republican strategy does have significant sociopathic elements, which should be condemned by all responsible citizens, not just us partisan Democrats. But to most people, I would guess that using the term “political terrorism” to describe Republican legislative obstructionism is rhetorical overkill which demonizes adversaries. You never help your case by overstating descriptions of your opponent’s behavior.
When rising Democratic star Rep. Alan Grayson called his Republican opponent, Daniel Webster, ‘Taliban Dan,’ in the 2010 congressional race, Grayson apparently hurt his own cred with a number of voters. Sure he had a point, in that his opponent urged making divorce illegal and forcing abused women to remain in their marriages, not so unlike Taliban policy towards women. But using the term may have contributed to Grayson’s defeat in that election. Thankfully, Grayson was elected in 2012 to a different district, proving that you can recover from verbal blunders, if you learn the lesson.
In his Washington Monthly post, “Nihilism or Principle,” Ed Kilgore notes that top journalists including James Fallows and Jonathan Chait may have strayed into rhetorical overkill territory in describing the behavior of GOP leaders as “nihilism.” The term sort of fits much recent Republican behavior, particularly the knee-jerk opposition to anything Obama, regardless of the consequences. But nihilism, as Kilgore observes, entails an absence of ideology, while the GOP is heavily laden with extremist ideologues, with Cruz as exhibit A.
It’s not all that hard to visualize McConnell and Boehner being portrayed in an SNL skit as the nihilists in “The Big Lebowski.” Boehner does seem to relish with nihilistic gusto his recent anointing as the least productive Speaker, maybe ever. If Republicans have not quite earned the “nihilist” designation, some of them seem to be dabbling in the nihilist spectrum.
Nor is it too much of a stretch to argue that Republicans are flirting with both “political terrorism” and “nihilism.” But I don’t think there is much benefit in pushing the terms as memes, and Dems can hurt their cause by doing so. It’s quite enough that the GOP richly deserves the “obstructionist” designation, which even its defenders sometimes affirm. The term resonates well because it is wholly, not partially accurate.
With respect to Dems calling out Republicans for “sabotage,” however, we are on very safe ground. You would be hard-pressed to find a more accurate one-word term to describe the current strategy of Republican congressional leaders. The GOP’s proclivity for sabotage is unprecedented in scale, beyond blocking the progress of legislation. They are now into preventing the implementation of duly-enacted laws at every opportunity, consciously thumbing their noses at the Democratic process and the American people. That may not literally be anarchy, political terrorism or nihilism. But the trend is disturbingly in that direction.
For now, however, the wisest course would be to pass on attacking Republicans with terms that don’t quite fully apply and which sound like unjustified ad hominem attacks. Better, Democrats continue to call out Republicans for gridlock, obstruction, paralysis and sabotage (GOPS), terms which resonate with more accuracy every day.

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