Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, nicknamed “Dr. No” by the Democrats for blocking so many Democratic initiatives, spoke some common sense at a rally in Norman, Oklahoma. Responding to anger from a crowd about the health care bill recently passed, and which Coburn vigorously opposed, he told those gathered “not to be biased by Fox News,” and said that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was a “nice lady.” He said that the Democrats in Washington are good people, but that they just “don’t know what they don’t know.”
Coburn is one of the more ardent conservatives in the Senate. I recently got an e-mail from the American Political Science Association urging me to contact my representatives because Senator Coburn was trying to cut political science research grants. I didn’t — self interest aside, in budgetary times like this I respect elected officials asking whether or not tax payer money is really needed for such things — but his efforts at budget cutting are just some of many issues where he rankles the left. He is also the Senator who put a hold on extending unemployment benefits because there were no spending cuts to compensate for the costs.
Yet as the media — Fox News, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and others — try to inspire rage amongst the right wing by saying Obama’s ideas are ‘socialism,’ and an ‘end to the country as we know it,’ reality becomes replaced by media narrative focused solely on gaining ratings through arousing emotion. Senator Patty Murray of Washington received a death threat. A man with his ten year old daughter was slammed into by another car simply because he had an Obama bumper sticker. Sarah Palin says “it’s time to reload” and the rhetoric demonizes Pelosi, Reid, and especially Obama.
True, incidents of violence are the exception, not the rule. Moreover, after the 2000 election the anger directed at President Bush was also sometimes over the top. Indeed, while the problem may seem focused on the far right these days, it’s really a cultural problem facing the country: are we losing those values which make a democracy viable?
The crowd apparently didn’t like Coburn saying that Nancy Pelosi was a good person. They didn’t want to hear that disagreement on politics doesn’t mean you have to consider the other side evil. It’s more emotionally compelling to get active in politics and political debates if you feel you’re fighting for what is good and right when the other side is evil. If the other side can be caricatured, ridiculed and mocked on personal grounds, then it is more than political disagreement, it is those with the right ideas trying to defeat ignorant, evil, arrogant, narcissistic anti-Americans with evil intent. In short, it’s akin to a jihad.
Senator Coburn’s comments show that conservatism doesn’t have to have a mean spirited intolerant ugly face. It can be a set of ideas. Cut spending, increase individual freedom, make government smaller, and don’t add programs you can’t pay for. Now, the left can engage those ideas. What do you cut and when? Can you really increase individual freedom if there isn’t real opportunity for all? What does smaller government mean? But those would be debates about issues. To do that Rush Limbaugh would have to start sounding like NPR. How many listeners would he keep?
The problem isn’t conservatism or conservatives, the problem is the media and those who want to use it to create emotion-laden narratives about reality to either incite the masses, or at least to make a buck. I suspect inside the back rooms of politics, Republicans fret about how far they can go criticizing the narrative put out by Fox News and people like Limbaugh without having them turn the masses against them at primary time.
The problem is also the times — we are going through a cultural and technological transformation of society which is altering every aspect of life. This is taking place alongside economic crisis and unfinished wars. The stress and uncertainty level is high, and people often fear change. That isn’t always bad — change can lead in horrible directions. But if it becomes political jihad of ‘the good guys who see what America should be’ vs. ‘those awful socialists who want to destroy the American dream’ then democracy itself may be in danger. The same can be said for how many on the left reacted to President Bush. It seems, though, to be reaching a new level.
I don’t know the solution. Emotion drives human behavior far more easily than reason. Fascism arose in Germany and Italy from similar movements – demonizing the government, causing fear that people are losing their identity, and using media manipulation to legitimate their rise. The answer is not to control the media — that’s an impossible task anyway, even China is finding that out!
Perhaps the answer is for people with strong convictions, left and right, to do like Coburn did and speak out against the idea that the ‘other side’ is evil and bad. Maybe groups of Democratic and Republican leaders can meet together and show that they respect each other and can be friendly, even if they have real political disagreements. That can work — that still is the norm here in Maine. You can’t learn from others if you dismiss them as evil; I like to learn and challenge my own beliefs when I debate politics. So thanks, Senator Coburn — hopefully you’re starting a trend!