Tone Versus Substance

Jared Lee Loughner’s killing spree has rekindled a long-running debate about political discourse in the United States. Voices like Andrew Sullivan insist that violent, inflammatory rhetoric poisons our country, and runs the risk of empowering the deranged. Jack Shafer takes an almost opposite position. “Our spirited political discourse, complete with name-calling, vilification—and, yes, violent imagery—is a good thing,” he writes. “Better that angry people unload their fury in public than let it fester and turn septic in private.” Who is right? I have no idea. Both arguments are plausible. It’s even possible for the same rhetoric to act as a release valve for public passions and to inspire someone on the fringe to do something terrible. But whether you side with Sullivan or Shafer – or call yourself an agnostic like me – I’d argue that tone is overemphasized in these conversations about political discourse, while substance is mostly ignored.

What if we took the opposite approach? I don’t think that Sarah Palin bears any responsibility for the shooting in Arizona, or that her rhetoric is the most egregious you’ll find on the right. I don’t have any problem with her poster putting various Congressional districts in cross-hairs. It’s a commonly used visual metaphor, for better or worse, and the substance being communicated is basically that the GOP wants to take back or “target” certain seats. The “tone” is arguably extreme, but what’s being said, the ultimate message, is perfectly acceptable: beat these people at the polls.

In contrast, Palin’s remarks about death panels communicated an untruth: the notion that Barack Obama’s health care reform effort sought to empower a panel of bureaucrats who’d sit in judgment about whether an old person’s life would be saved or not. That is the sort of thing we ought to find objectionable, even if the substance is communicated in the most dry language imaginable, because were it true, radicalism would be an appropriate response. “They’re going to start killing old people? We’ve got to stop this!”

I don’t think the right’s rhetoric is responsible for the shooting in Arizona. Long before this incident, however, I was arguing that the right does have a rhetoric problem. I still think that is true, and the aggrieved attitude of conservative commentators the last couple days is too much for me. Yes, I agree with many of them that Palin and friends aren’t responsible for this assassination attempt. Sadly, that is the most you can say in their favor. But it isn’t an entirely partisan impulse that causes some people to think otherwise.

Since Barack Obama took office, prominent voices on the right have called him an ally of Islamist radicals in their Grand Jihad against America, a radical Kenyan anti-colonialist, a man who pals around with terrorists and used a financial crisis to deliberately weaken America, an usurper who was born abroad and isn’t even eligible to be president, a guy who has somehow made it so that it’s okay for black kids to beat up white kids on buses, etc. I haven’t even touched on the conspiracy theories of Glenn Beck. The birthers excepted, the people making these chargers are celebrated by movement conservatives – they’re given book deals, awards, and speaking engagements.

If all of these charges were true, a radicalized citizenry would be an appropriate response. But even the conservatives who defend Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, D’Souza, McCarthy, and so many others don’t behave as if they believe all the nonsense they assert. The strongest case against these people isn’t that their rhetoric inspires political violence. It’s that they frequently utter indefensible nonsense. The problem isn’t their tone. It’s that the substance of what they’re saying is so blinkered that it isn’t even taken seriously by their ideological allies (even if they’re too cowardly, mercenary or team driven to admit as much).

They’re in a tough spot these days partly because it’s impossible for them to mount the defense of their rhetoric that is true: “I am a frivolous person, and I don’t choose my words based on their meaning. Rather, I behave like the worst caricature of a politician. If you think my rhetoric logically implies that people should behave violently, you’re mistaken – neither my audience nor my peers in the conservative movement are engaged in a logical enterprise, and it’s unfair of you to imply that people take what I say so seriously that I can be blamed for a real world event. Don’t you see that this is all a big game? This is how politics works. Stop pretending you’re not in on the joke.”

UPDATE: Noam Scheiber is worth reading on this subject too.