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Assuming the Worst Harms Our System

Hunter Baker, Associate Dean of Arts & Science
Jan 14, 2011

On Jan. 8, a young man drew his pistol and proceeded to shoot into a crowd of people gathered for a constituent meeting with their congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords. He wounded many of the attendees and killed six.

As of this writing, Giffords is likely to survive, but it is not a certainty. In the immediate aftershock, political partisans, especially those operating primarily on the Internet, hurried to place blame on conservatives (especially Sarah Palin) for the crime.

The situation recalls the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. When he was murdered, many rushed to judgment and assumed that some sort of conservative extremist had fired the shots. In truth, the assassin was the American communist Lee Harvey Oswald. In the case of the Tucson shooting, the killer was a relatively apolitical young man with a history of mental problems. In neither case could the rhetoric of Barry Goldwater or Palin be blamed for the tragedy that occurred.

Despite the lack of a causal connection, some have taken advantage of the awful event to try to cast aspersion upon their political enemies. They suggest that political extremism is to blame and that if only people like Palin, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh would go away, such crises would never occur.

The argument is wrong-headed on several levels. First, the history of American political speech is quite heated. Anyone doubting that genteel fellows in wigs could sling mud as well as today's practitioners should revisit the election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Second, our rhetoric is strong in part because we live in a nation that puts a tremendous premium on free speech. Opponents use their freedom to attempt to draw stark differences so that voters can make an informed choice.

Third, for many Americans, politics works a lot like sports. There are people who are "fans" of the GOP and the Democratic party. They talk, just as Alabama and Auburn fans do, about "destroying" the other team, "targeting" vulnerabilities, and "evening scores." This talk is like locker room speech. Those employing it seek to inspire participation.

There is, however, a much deeper problem in our democracy than this supposedly fearful political rhetoric. It's one thing for politicians to campaign hard and to use combative language. It is another to act as though the campaign never ends and to treat the other side as a permanent enemy.

We have developed a tendency that is worse than speaking ill of one another. It is the habit of assuming the worst. Productive politics depends on some level of trust and goodwill. If we operate on the assumption that those at odds with us are wrong, but still desire the best for our country, then we can have a productive discussion. But if we think those who disagree are evil, then we will have a paucity of good laws and a cornucopia of conflict in their place.

This column originally appeared in the January 14 edition of The Jackson Sun