Saturday when Jared Loughner opened fire in Tucson at an event hosted by Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, he not only seriously injured Giffords (who is still fighting for her life), but in all killed at least six people and injured 18 more. One of the dead was nine year old Christina Taylor Green, who was born on September 11, 2001.
When an event like this occurs, as a political scientist my first thought concerns what this says about our political culture. Ultimately, governments reflect the political culture they are built upon. Democracies cannot function without a public willing to tolerate diverse opinions, accept the legitimacy and necessity of an effective opposition, accept electoral defeat, and hand over power when necessary. There must be an understanding that almost everyone agrees on some core values and ideals of the society, the disagreement is how best to achieve them. Thus democracies require an essential unity of purpose, even if there are disagreements on what achieving that purpose means, and the means on how to do so.
The shooting spree is the latest in a series of events that cause some to think the political culture of the United States is drifting away from stable acceptance of democracy to one poisoned by angry and virulent rhetoric, where the two sides see each other as “the enemy,” unwilling to compromise, yet eager to demonize. If this is the case, it’s a more dangerous threat to stability than any of the other problems we face. If our political culture frays, then democracy can perish.
For example, Sarah Palin had a “target” on Giffords, one of twenty districts identified as being in the “crosshairs.” Talk from the tea party movement often uses the rhetoric of revolution and “hunting down” and “taking out” Democrats. Derision of “liberals” by talk radio hosts caricature the left and mock them, often suggesting that they are dangerous to America’s liberty and core interests. The call to “take back” or even “save” America gets made frequently, as President Obama is even labeled a Keynan born Muslim who wants to destroy America. Glenn Beck sheds tears talking about how the country may be in its last days of liberty and prosperity. He wants “real” Americans to rise up and take it back from the “liberals” whose values are foreign and strange.
Yet President Bush and the Republicans got similar treatment five years ago. President Bush was a fascist, a vampire sucking the blood out of the Republic (cover art for The New Yorker magazine), a criminal President leading us into wars out of a lust for oil profits and expanding the reach of corporations. Calls to “take back” and even “save” America were as common then, but common from the left rather than the right. Our freedom and liberty was in danger from corporate America, whose manipulation through campaign contributions and advertising threatened the essence of our democratic values.
Clearly, there has been an edge to American political rhetoric lately. Yes, one can find numerous examples in US history of campaigns fighting dirty, but the depth and emotional power of the media has made this recent bout seem like there are two visions of America, and no room to compromise. Rather than the focus on personal attacks (which was very common in the past) whole sections of the population have been attacked and demonized because of their perspective on the issues of the day.
Yet for all the fear that we might be slipping into an abyss, with our political culture deteriorating, there is hope. The public is not as politicized as it seems. The extremes may wage ideological jihad, but average folk just want the politicians to come up with some common sense solutions to problems. They may veer left (like they did in 2006 and 2008) and then right (like in 2010), but the extremes of each party are rather small. The tea party movement, in fact, already seems to be petering out. Fox and MSNBC may be yelling at teach other, but even the people who watch them deep down don’t see the other side as “evil.” Politics has become like professional wrestling — we expect the trash talk, but know it’s spectacle.
Still, things can get out of control. When President Clinton was elected in 1992, there was a strong anti-Clinton backlash on the right, as militia movements, “survivalists” and gun rights advocates proliferated. Their rhetoric was extreme, often talking about open revolt or civil war. Yet when one man acted on these ideas, Timothy McVeigh, the “movement” folded. McVeigh’s attack on the Oklahoma Federal Building, killing 168 people including 19 children, caused people to pause. The idea of killing Americans and having a real civil war is not what anyone outside the fringe of the fringe wants!
I suspect the act of Jared Loughner, arrested for the killings, may be the impetus for another such “let’s pause and settle down” moment. Republicans will have to admit that warnings about domestic terror and violence were legitimate, they can no longer mock those. But Democrats should admit that however irresponsible Sarah Palin’s rhetoric may have been, neither she nor the tea party can be blamed for the attack. People of Loughner’s ilk are driven by deeper demons. The intense rhetoric and anger on both sides creates the conditions that can influence a McVeigh or Loughner to act.
So far, the political reaction has been good. Both President Obama and House Speaker Boehner spoke out unequivocally against such violence, and more importantly, in favor of unity. As Boehner said, an attack on one who serves in Congress is an attack on all. At base Republicans and Democrats are united in wanting to do what’s best for America, even if they have stark disagreements about what that means. As the human stories come out, people will realize that political passions are not worth violence or pain. We’ll remember we’re really on the same side in important matters.
We are 300 million people trying to create a society that is at peace and prosperous. Perhaps this event will bring back some of what the country felt after 9-11-01, recognition that united we stand, divided we fall. And maybe we’ll rethink the ease in which we talk about violence as legitimate political action.
That is why Christina Taylor Green’s death has a symbolism that can unite. She was born on our most tragic day in recent times, and died on what was arguably the most tragic day for US politics since then. Our country unified around the acts that took place the day she was born, but the difficult and trying years since have divided us. Many have forgotten that sense of unity of purpose that we had after 9-11. Perhaps her tragic death can bring us back together, and push aside the anger and animosity of recent years. Maybe then we can start solving the problems facing us, and make sure her death was not in vain.