There has been a great effort this week to come to grips with the American left’s reaction to the Tucson shooting. Paul Krugman of the New York Times and its editorial page, George Packer of the New Yorker, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek and others, in varying degrees, have linked the murders to the intensity of opposition to the policies and presidency of Barack Obama. As Mr. Krugman asked in his Monday commentary: “Were you, at some level, expecting something like this atrocity to happen?”
The “you” would be his audience, and the answer is yes, they thought that in these times “something like this” could happen in the United States. Other media commentators, without a microbe of conservatism in their bloodstreams, have rejected this suggestion.
So what was the point? Why attempt the gymnastic logic of asserting that the act of a deranged personality was linked to the tea parties and the American right? Two reasons: Political calculation and personal belief.
The calculation flows from the shock of the midterm elections of November 2010. That was no ordinary election. What voters did has the potential to change the content and direction of the U.S. political system, possibly for a generation.
Only 24 months after Barack Obama’s own historic election and a rising Democratic tide, the country flipped. Not just control of the U.S. House, but deep in the body politic. Republicans now control more state legislative seats than any time since 1928.
What elevated this transfer of power to historic status is that it came atop the birth of a genuine reform movement, the tea parties. Most of the time, election results are the product of complex and changeable sentiments or the candidates’ personalities. What both sides fear most is a genuine movement with focused goals.
The tea party itself got help from history—the arrival of a clarifying event, the sovereign debt crisis of 2010. Simultaneously in the capitals of Europe, California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and elsewhere it was revealed that fiscal commitments made across decades, often for liberally inspired social goals, had put all these states into a condition of effective bankruptcy.
This stark reality unnerved many Americans. The tea partiers’ fiscal concerns were real. Despite that, a progressive Democratic president and congressional leadership spent 2009 and 2010 passing the biggest economic entitlement since 1965 and driving U.S. spending to 25%, or $3.5 trillion, of the nation’s $14 trillion GDP. A public claim of that size hasn’t been seen since World War II.
They expected to take losses in November. What they got instead was Armageddon. Suddenly an authentic reform movement, linked to the Republican Party, whose goal simply is to stop the public spending curve, had come to life. This poses a mortal threat to the financial oxygen in the economic ecosystem that the public wing of the Democratic Party has inhabited all these years.
The stakes for the American left in 2012 couldn’t possibly be higher. If then, and again in 2014, progressives can’t pull toward their candidates some percentage of the independent voters who in November abandoned the Democratic Party, they could be looking in from the outside for as many years as some of them have left to write about politics. A wilderness is a terrible place to be.
Against that grim result, every sentence Messrs. Krugman, Packer, Alter, the Times and the rest have written about Tucson is logical and understandable. What happened in November has to be stopped, by whatever means become available. Available this week was a chance to make some independents wonder if the tea parties, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Jared Loughner are all part of the same dark force.
Who believes this? They do.
The divide between this strain of the American left and its conservative opponents is about more than politics and policy. It goes back a long way, it is deep, and it will never be bridged. It is cultural, and it explains more than anything the “intensity” that exists now between these two competing camps. (The independent laments: “Can’t we all just get along?” Answer: No.)
The Rosetta Stone that explains this tribal divide is Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter’s piece for Harper’s may be unfamiliar to many now, but each writer at the opening of this column knows by rote what Hofstadter’s essay taught generations of young, left-wing intellectuals about conservatism and the right.
After Hofstadter, the American right wasn’t just wrong on policy. Its people were psychologically dangerous and undeserving of holding authority for any public purpose. By this mental geography, the John Birch Society and the tea party are cut from the same backwoods cloth.
“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” Hofstadter wrote. “In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”
Frank Rich, Oct 17: “Don’t expect the extremism and violence in our politics to subside magically after Election Day—no matter what the results. If Tea Party candidates triumph, they’ll be emboldened. If they lose, the anger and bitterness will grow.”
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Tuesday in the Huffington Post: “Jack’s death forced a national bout of self-examination. In 1964, Americans repudiated the forces of right-wing hatred and violence with an historic landslide in the presidential election between LBJ and Goldwater. For a while, the advocates of right-wing extremism receded from the public forum. Now they have returned with a vengeance—to the broadcast media and to prominent positions in the political landscape.”
This isn’t just political calculation. It is foundational belief.
So, yes, Tucson has indeed been revealing. On to 2012.