Referencing the political and ideological violence in 1970s San Francisco, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said "I wish that we would all, again, curb our enthusiasm in some of the statements that are made." (Watch video here.)
In relation to Pelosi's comments, most observers have focused on the horrific killings of Harvey Milk and SF Mayor George Moscone, but it's worth remembering that the Bay Area suffered under wide-ranging ideologically motivated violence back in the day, including shootings such as "the Zebra killings," actions by the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Black Panthers, the People's Temple, and more. And that the most recent act of actual overt political violence may be an anti-abortion activist who was gunned down (the killer's motivation is not clear).
But is a serious threat of real violence hanging heavy over today's political disputes? Despite the intense, spirited language, and often-ugly signs—and what seems to be one incident of a gun-toting protester at a single event (the Arizona display of firepower was a radio stunt)—the answer is no (as even The Nation observed after a passel of Town Halls and other demonstrations, "there has in fact been very little violence and no gunplay at all.") Matt Welch and Jesse Walker have both pointed out the ways in which dissent from the dominant center—and let's not forget that Democrats hold the White House and Congress—is often tarred as paranoid, dangerous, and violent. It's an easy way to marginalize those who disagree with you. As is dismissing those who disagree with you as racist, as Jimmy Carter did (to its credit, the Obama White House immediately distanced itself from Carter's comments).
But maybe we do need to push the reset button, especially when it comes to actual elected politicians (there is very little anyone can or should do about professional media blowhards such as Rush Limbaugh).
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) did deserve to be reprimanded for his pathetic and puerile outburst during President Obama's speech. As Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) put it, regardless of any context, "I believe that it's important to maintain the rules of decorum of the House and I supported its passage." And a few years back, maybe Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) should have gotten in trouble for claiming on the House floor that George W. Bush and the Republicans were sending kids to Iraq "to get their heads blown off for the President's amusement." This sort of stuff, even if I happen to agree (more or less) with each statement, does nothing to engage me or other unwashed masses.
That kind of rhetoric certainly didn't up the level of debate, any more than a near-decade of Chimpy McHitler and Bushitler japes. Or, for that matter, Speaker Pelosi's consistent characterizations of people who disagree with her as "un-American," or "unpatriotic." She's famously fond of dissenters who agree with her ("It's always exciting," she told a group of anti-war hecklers in 2006), but that's too easy by half.
The Democrats control the government. If they can't pass their legislation, it's not because of Rush Limbaugh or even Joe Wilson, who were never on their team. It's easy to wave the bloody shirt of potential political violence, but in the end, when it comes to health care reform or whatever, the reason Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) or Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) or whomever isn't voting their way isn't because of Michael Savage or a latter-day John Brown. And it's probably not even because of incendiary rhetoric, but just plain-old unconvincing rhetoric. Like the idea that a vaguely defined "reform" that will cost $900 billion over 10 years will actually reduce government spending.