Let’s get one thing out of the way. While I wish that more people in politics talked like Yuval Levin and Austin Frakt I have a high tolerance for harsh political rhetoric. I know that in politics, some people are going to say vicious, ugly things and sometimes even believe them. I also think that the people who use harsh language should be open to criticism and judgment, but they should only be held responsible for the things they actually say, and not the actions of ideological fellow travelers. If you are so stupid/evil that hearing that the Tea Party/Occupy Wall Street is racist/communist gets you to go out and break the law or misuse your authority, that is on you. Three hundred million Americans should not have to walk on eggshells because you might go off at the first sign of political hyperbole.
But not everybody feels that way. New York Times political entertainer Paul Krugman argued that, even though the Gabby Giffords shooter was mentally ill, conservatives were still somehow responsible for the “national climate” that led up to the shooting. Well it turned out that the Giffords shooter was not just mentally ill, but that his obsessions had nothing to do with partisan politics. But let us grant Krugman’s argument that toxic political rhetoric can lead the suggestible to misbehave. The Giffords shooting turned out to be a bad example, but you know what, under Krugman’s standards, would be a good example of toxic rhetoric encouraging misbehavior? The IRS targeting of conservative groups.
The upsurge of conservative political activism in 2009-2010 produced a flood of hostile liberal commentary. Liberal entertainers, New York Times columnists, and even former President Jimmy Carter denounced the activist opponents of President Obama as racists. The incumbent Speaker of the House condemned Tea Party organizations as phony “astroturf” fronts for the wealthy.
At about the time that prominent liberal journalists and politicians were attacking a citizen-activist movement as racists engaged in fraud, a very liberal-leaning bureaucracy began to routinely flag Tea Party groups for further review, asked bizarre and inappropriate questions about the prayers of group members, tried to get a pro-life organization to promise not to protest Planned Parenthood, and leaked information about these groups to a liberal media organization. It appears the suspect IRS behavior was not limited to a cell of rogue agents in the Cincinnati branch.
This systemic and long-lasting abuse of government power by liberals is a much better example than the Giffords shooting of what happens when irresponsible and hysterical partisans try to produce a “national climate” of fear and hate in order to marginalize their small-d democratic political opponents. In the days after the Giffords shooting, liberal-leaning news outlets lectured us on the need for more civility in our politics – even though there was no evidence that the Giffords shooting was “political” in any sense that most Americans would recognize.
Now we learn that the public campaign by liberals to demonize their opponents coincided with a campaign of harassment against conservative groups by a liberal-leaning bureaucracy. Will the mainstream media point the finger at liberal partisans for creating a “national climate” where federal government employees felt they were justified in using their power to target the Tea Party and pro-lifers? Will we be told that it is the Jimmy Carters and Nancy Pelosis, and Charles Blows of the world who embolden suggestible and corrupt to do commit, and that it has been liberal partisans who have been poisoning the atmosphere with their rhetoric. According to the standards the mainstream media employed during the Giffords shooting, it is the liberal partisans who are partly at fault for the IRS scandal.