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Republicans tend to mistrust what people do with their personal choices, worrying that perverse tastes in everything from sexuality to ideology will undermine America's moral character and cohesiveness. Especially when in power, they all too often want to put the very "liberty" they claim to champion on a binary "scale" with "security," instead of trusting that the same openness that makes America prosperous and interesting also makes it more safe. Democrats, on the other hand, tend to mistrust what really lies in people's hearts, worrying that malevolent personal and corporate tendencies, if unrestrained by a civilizing government, will ineffably lead to exploitation, fraud, and violence.
The best that can be said about such dark suspicion of Amercians' true nature is that it reflects a sincere and strong desire to avoid the kind of racist violence that has plagued the country since its founding. The problem with the analysis, though, is that it fails to recognize that the overwhelming majority of Americans, too, despise racial conflict.
There was a fascinating article posted to Esquire magazine's website last week, purporting to track the "dangerous threats and outrageous actions" of what author John Richardson called "nothing less than the birth of a new religion" animating the resurgent right-wing fanatics. "Cobbled together from old parts (fundamentalism, gun rights, excessive reverence for capitalism and The Founders, paranoid talking points from the good old liberal-hating John Birch Society), this new decidedly American religion has finally achieved critical mass under the pressure of a president whome its most extreme adherents call — by no accident — the Antichrist."
Sounds pretty racist, probably! Until you meet the subject of Richardson's profile:
He has no sympathy for the many fans of the Confederacy who live in the area, for example. "They talk about taxes, about the war of northern aggression—that's all crap. It was about keeping black men in chains, and that was an affront against God."
One reason that the rising-tide-of-violent-racial-resentment narrative remains unconvincing is that* (see appended note at the bottom of this article) the proponents of the theory so rarely find any actual racists to pin it on. Frank Rich, in his Sunday column, entered this as his primary motivational evidence:
As the sociologist Daniel Bell put it, "What the right as a whole fears is the erosion of its own social position, the collapse of its power, the increasing incomprehensibility of a world—now overwhelmingly technical and complex—that has changed so drastically within a lifetime."
Daniel Bell wrote those words in 1962. And yet his condescending sentiments are being dusted off and repackaged as protester-explaining wisdom this summer, as if nothing significant has changed in 47 years.
"They are angry because they feel displaced," think tanker Chip Berlet told New America Media. "They feel pushed out of the way by liberals, people of color and immigrants. It's the story they have told themselves to explain why they haven't made it in America. It's racial anxiety fueled by a bad economy, a black president and disparities at a time when white people's supremacy is being challenged." As syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts put it, "Change, almost by definition, always comes too fast, always brings a sense of stark dislocation. As in the woman who cried to a reporter, 'I want my country back!' Probably the country she meant still had Beaver Cleaver on TV and Doris Day on 'Your Hit Parade.'"
So does it matter if some pundits exaggerate a threat that, if acted upon, even by a lone gunman, would indeed be terrible? I think yes, for three reasons:
1) It's a way to marginalize the political viewpoints of non-violent non-racists. So Michael Tomasky characterizes all opponents to the Democrats' complicated health care package as "the birthers and the gun-toters and the Hitler analogists." Leonard Pitts says, "These are the people who immediately declared it their fervent hope that the new presidency fail, the ones who cheered when the governor of Texas raised the specter of secession, the ones who went online to re-christen the executive mansion the 'Black' House, and to picture it with a watermelon patch out front." Gene Lyons asserts that "It's not possible to reason with people peddling grotesque and preposterous lies, bargain with people who are screaming, or negotiate under threats of violence."
The biggest problem with blanketly characterizing opponents of
the health care package as venal, irredeemable grotesques is that
it would mean 54
percent of Americans are evil, stupid, or both. Not a very
charitable reading on the country that just elected a liberal black
guy as president. It says plenty about the dominant political
party's sore-winner instincts that at the first sign of strong
resistance to the new administation's policies, the American people
themselves get tarred as "delusional"
and worse. While usually uncoercive and easily resisted, the
marginalization of ideas can have a negative impact on debate, and
2) It could lead to terrible legislation. The anti-militia hysteria of the 1990s led directly to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996, a PATRIOT Act-precursor of a law that introduced the totalitarian concepts of secret evidence and secret courts to the Land of the Free, removed the appeals process for the disproportionately non-white legal non-citizens who are barred entry to the United States by border guards, and limited appeals for death row inmates. This heinous, unamerican law played a significant role in causing liberal New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis to conclude that "Bill Clinton has the worst civil liberties record of any president in at least 60 years."
If you think such linkage between contemporary hysteria and liberty-eroding legislation is a stretch, read no further than Frank Rich's column, which—amazingly, considering he writes on the same page where Lewis systematically detailed AEDPA's outrages against civil liberties in the 1990s—sneeringly criticized Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) for his efforts to "soften" the bill when it was passed.
3) It could encourage law enforcement abuse. Dehumanizing the "other" is not just the province of racists. And, as anti-"eliminationists" are otherwise quick to remind us, dehumanizing your political opponents is the classic precondition for treating them in inhumane ways. Americans rightly recoil when racists call Mexicans "cockroaches," or when idiot Republicans draw watermelons on the Obamas' front lawn. But dismissing a swath of the country as fanatical brownshirts threatening the country with impending violence performs a similar function of dehumanization—what's a lower human life form than a Nazi, after all?—and practically cries out for forcible intervention.