How do you take one of the most shocking and revolting murder sprees in memory and make it even more disturbing? By pouncing on its supposed root causes for transparently partisan purposes.
Within hours of the January 8 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), U.S. District Judge John Roll, 9-year-old Christina Taylor-Green, and more than a dozen other people in a Tucson parking lot, Twitter was choked with the obscene accusation—soon to be immortalized in a New York Daily News column by Michael Daly—that former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin had "blood on her hands." As if the tweets blaming the attack on political rhetoric were not bad enough, Democratic Party players such as Paul Begala were quickly telling news outlets that the massacre represented an important "opportunity" for President Barack Obama. Politico reported that "veteran Democratic consultant Dan Gerstein said the crisis 'really plays to Obama's strengths as consensus-builder' and gives him the opportunity to build a deeper emotional connection with the people he governs. 'He'll be active, but also very careful not to appear like he's blaming or politicizing,' Gerstein predicted."
Of course, the GOP and its supporters are more than ready to play a similar political game whenever blood is spilled. The PATRIOT Act and "global war on terror" were launched within days of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Long-term GOP activist Jerry Falwell immediately announced on Pat Robertson's TV channel that "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians" were partly responsible for the murder of nearly 3,000 people by radical Islamists. Years after Falwell apologized for his idiotic statement, conservative writer Dinesh D'Souza blew out the thesis into a full-length book, charmingly titled The Enemy at Home. D'Souza wasn't talking about the people flying planes into buildings—he was more bent out of shape by dramatic readings of The Vagina Monologues. Just a few days after the Tucson massacre, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh inveighed that alleged shooter Jared Loughner "has the full support" of the Democratic Party, which "is attempting to find anybody but him to blame" for the violence.
The ability to muster a pre-political, simply human response to senseless tragedy seems to elude even those who aim to transcend the liberal-conservative divide. "It's a real tragedy, but it's also a real opportunity," former Bush hand Mark McKinnon told The Washington Post right after the shooting. McKinnon is a co-founder of No Labels, a new political group whose slogan is "Not Left. Not Right. Forward."
Putting political calculations first may be the modus operandi in Washington, but it's also a key reason why more and more Americans are refusing to buy what Washington sells. It's unnatural to act this way, and it reinforces the truism that politics is, as Henry Adams put it, "the systematic organization of hatreds" rather than a means of securing the common good.
There's no reason to think that today's political rhetoric is particularly overheated or inflammatory compared to even the recent past. There hasn't been a U.S. election since the end of the Cold War that some minority of the population didn't think was "stolen." Nor has there been a recent president who wasn't compared to Adolf Hitler. And even if current discourse were especially vitriolic, it's hard to see how it is relevant in this case, where the apparent shooter's motivations are the product of psychosis, not talk radio.
We do know now that accused gunman Jared Loughner didn't listen to Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage, didn't belong to a political party, and, according to a friend, didn't watch TV or care about politics. But even if Sarah Palin's notorious 2010 midterm election graphic, which "targeted" the districts of incumbents (including Giffords) who voted for health care reform, had somehow stuck in Loughner's brain, she would be no more responsible for his violence than J.D. Salinger was for "inspiring" John Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman. Most of us immediately grasp this. A CBS News poll taken shortly after the shooting found that about 60 percent of Americans thought "politics" had nothing to do with the shooting. Just 33 percent thought it may have had "something" to do with the rampage.
Our problem isn't with modern rhetoric. It's with the politicization of every part of our lives, no matter how elevated or base, not for a higher purpose or broader fight but for the cheapest moment-by-moment partisan advantage. Both left and right embrace a totalist mentality that says the most important aspect of everything is whether it helps or hurts your party of choice.
This deeply Machiavellian calculation helps explain poll results that were released the week of the shooting. In its most recent survey of American political self-identification, the Gallup Poll found that Democrats were at their lowest point in two decades, 31 percent, while the GOP remains stuck below the one-third mark, even though far more people consider themselves conservative than liberal. The self-description with the highest percentage was Independent, at 38 percent, an increase of 7 points from 2003. This is a long-term trend: Harris Poll numbers that stretch back to the late 1960s tell the same broad story.
What Gallup and Harris are measuring is not just party registration; it's about how Americans see themselves. It's a cultural identity, like rooting for the Mets or the Yankees. Rejecting that identity is even more basic than declining to register for a major political party.
Stalwart partisans no doubt will blame apathy and self-involvement for their declining market and mind shares. But Americans have always sought refuge from, not expansion of, politics. Faced with major parties and their backers bending every news story, consumer trend, heat wave, snow storm, box office hit or bomb—you name it—to a political narrative, is it any wonder that fewer people want to be affiliated with Democrats or Republicans? We want to get on with life, and certainly with more important things than party politics.
Nick Gllespie (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor in chief of reason.tv and reason.com.