This Is a Time to Reflect on What Is Important

by Stuart Rothenberg January 12, 2011 · 9:43 AM EST

The political fallout from the horrific shootings in Tucson, Ariz., on Saturday was predictable. Members of Congress called for a return to civility, gun control advocates used the tragedy to call for more gun control and some liberals blamed the violence on conservatives.

So what else is new?

Of course, the call for more restraint and civility often comes from exactly those who have demonized the opposition the most.

In 1982, Sidney Blumenthal wrote about the “permanent campaign,” but over the past decade, our campaigns and politics have become increasingly crude, rude, angry and confrontational. And if anything, our campaigns have become more frenzied around the clock and throughout the calendar since Blumenthal wrote that book.

Campaign posturing and political attacks literally never stop.

The day after the midterm elections, the National Republican Congressional Committee sent out a fundraising e-mail asserting that “Democrats are desperate and will do whatever is necessary to steal any seat they can.” I received almost identical e-mails from Democratic campaign committees as well. The money chase never stops.

Two weeks after Election Day, I received an e-mail from some flack pushing the availability of an author who wrote a book about “the 15 biggest lies about the economy coming from the Right today.” Over the last weekend, I received another e-mail from the same public relations person pimping another author, who wrote “Dangerous Brew: Exposing the Tea Party’s Agenda to Take Over America.”

On Nov. 16, the National Republican Senatorial Committee distributed an e-mail attacking Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who is up for re-election in 2012, for putting “her party bosses’ reckless job-killing agenda ahead of the best interests of her constituents in Washington State.”

In mid-December, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee blasted newly elected Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) for having “gone Washington.” West’s crime? “West is actually asking Republican Party leadership if he can spend more time in Washington rather than at home in his district.”

In other words, West wants to spend more time working, which the DCCC apparently thinks is bad. You can bet, of course, that if West wanted to spend less time in session and more time in his Florida district, the DCCC would have blasted him for not wanting to do his job as a legislator.

And, on Dec. 19, the New York State Republican Party blasted Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), who had just won her race but faces re-election to a full six-year term in 2012, because she “sides with the radical left” — the radical left — in voting to raise taxes (by opposing the compromise extending the Bush tax cuts).

No, none of the language I’ve just mentioned would encourage any sane person to pick up a weapon and attack a government official. And much of this language is standard political boilerplate. There is no talk about shooting people.

But the round-the-clock partisan attacks contribute to the coarsening of our political discourse and reflect the general deterioration of our culture.

Sure, politics is politics, and rough-and-tumble attacks are just part of the game. Partisanship is nothing new. But the relentless bombardment of politicians, officeholders and parties — accusations about lying and stealing and radicals —takes its toll.

It’s possible to have intelligence, partisanship and civility, as former Sens. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) have shown, and it wouldn’t hurt our politics or our social fabric to have a pause for a month or two from the relentless attacks. (This is a strong argument against lame-duck sessions, which continue political bickering and name-calling immediately after an election.)

Of course, while the parties and politicians bear some responsibility for the constant political attacks and growing incivility, other groups deserve a chunk of the blame.

The day after the Arizona shooting, I came across an e-mail from Michael Lerner of Tikkun, a very liberal Jewish magazine and website, titled “Shooting of Jewish Congresswoman Giffords is Not Just a ‘Tragedy’ — It’s Part of a Right-Wing Assault on Government and the Liberals & Progressives Who Support It.”

There is no point in repeating Lerner’s political rant, but he uses the shooting to further his political agenda, blaming the political right for everything and drawing conclusions that were obviously premature.

Over the past few years, groups on the political right and left have charged each other with lying, cheating, stealing and planning to destroy the American way of life. Individually, the charges aren’t a huge problem. But collectively, they are.

The Internet has become a platform for anonymous personal attacks and demonization. Cable TV, with its reliance on caricatures and faulty logic, gets ratings by playing to emotions.

We need more humility and modesty in our politics, as well as in the larger culture.

The attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others on Saturday may simply be the work of a deranged, delusional guy with a gun. But it gives us an opportunity to think about what kind of society we want. I’m not talking about health care, immigration and tax policy, but rather about how we live our lives and the part that politics should play in them.