The more I think about the surge in political rage that’s just produced the terrifying attempt to assassinate Republican Members of Congress in Alexandria, Va., the more I’m convinced that the resulting deluge of well-intentioned commentary and introspection has missed a big reason for doubting that, as so many have urged, Americans will stop demonizing and dehumanizing their political opponents. Moreover, I’m also more convinced that there are real limits to how far this admittedly troubling tendency actually should go.
To clarify right away, this isn’t to say that violence is ever justified in U.S. public life — although history teaches us to be wary even of this generally worthy sentiment. For example, I’m not at all convinced that Americans would have responded even in the inadequate way they did to problems in the country’s then-heavily black inner cities had riots not convulsed many of them. The nation almost certainly wouldn’t have responded as quickly as it did. And I haven’t forgotten that too many of the rioters were simply looters.
I am prepared, though, to say that violence isn’t ever justified in public life nowadays. Ditto for urging violence, either explicitly or through various dog whistles.
But it’s going to be a lot harder to exorcise extreme, hate-filled rhetoric and emotions. For many of the most prominent assumptions and arguments made about most of our major public issues entail the claim that those who disagree aren’t simply motivated by different philosophies and ideologies. They’re motivated by – often appallingly and/or dangerously – selfish interests. And many of these claims by no means should be dismissed out of hand.
Are there inexcusable, purposeful excesses? How could there not be? We’re dealing with human beings here. But take the left-ish view of the whole cluster of economic inequality issues. Do many champions of cuts in various safety net and other social programs sincerely believe that they have on net eroded incentives to work and form families? Obviously the answer is Yes.
But are many others simply selfish? Of course they are. Are many working openly or on the sly for interests that would lose income or profits if taxes were raised to finance such spending – although they would clearly remain affluent by any reasonable measure? Yup. Has American history been filled with the efforts of the affluent and the powerful to maintain their positions at the expense of the poorer and weaker? How could anyone dispute this? Should plutocracy and its defense not be called out? Absolutely not.
Similar points can be made about causes favored by liberals and Democrats. Are many on the left acting mainly out of compassion or other altruistic sentiments when urging legalization and citizenship for illegal immigrants? Do many other genuinely believe that various forms of amnesty-like policies will benefit the economy, including more workers? Definitely.
Do many others back amnesty etc in the hope of creating new pro-Democratic voting blocs or expanding existing ones, regardless of the impact on public safety or social cohesion? No doubt about it. And can’t signs be seen of misplaced senses of guilt so powerful that they shunt completely aside the needs of the existing legal population? Clearly they can. Should this kind of hypocrisy or childishness be ignored? How would that strengthen democracy?
No doubt you all can come up with many other comparable examples – because the creation and maintenance of a democracy can’t possibly guarantee that men (and women) have or will become angels. But the genius of this country’s politics so far (with the mammoth exception of the Civil War) has been to keep political battles battles in name only, and to sustain the consensus that, though opponents may be deeply and justifiably hated, their removal from power or the frustration of their aims according to accepted procedures is the only acceptable goal – not their literal destruction.
The trick, then, or much of it, is for Americans to learn (or re-learn) the ability to decompress once even the most heated political campaigns or legislative contests have ended, to accept as legitimate any winner – even the most seemingly odious – who has triumphed within the specified rules, and to continue pushing causes as fiercely as ever while respecting those bounds. You say you don’t like some of the rules and bounds? Work (again, within the system, or via peaceful civil disobedience if you so choose) to replace them. The system makes such mechanisms available.
As I write these words, I find myself thinking of the human maturation process and to the development of perspective so central to its arrival. And I can’t help but think that’s no coincidence.