“Politics As Warfare” (Bumped)

This morning three Democratic Party strategists, Ed Kilgore, James Vega and J. P. Green, sent out a “strategy memo” that was titled, rather clumsily: “Beyond ‘Sabotage’ — The Central Issue About the Growing Political Extremism of the Republican Party Is That It’s Undermining Fundamental American Standards of Ethical Political Conduct and Behavior.” That’s quite a charge; what evidence do the authors offer in support of it?
They begin by referring to a Washington Monthly article in which a blogger named Steve Benen “gave voice to a growing and profoundly disturbing concern among Democrats–that Republicans may actually plan to embrace policies designed to deny Obama not only political victories but also the maximum possible economic growth during his term in order weaken Democratic prospects in the 2012 elections.” This is a remarkably silly theory. If Republicans really wanted to retard economic growth, they would join with the Obama administration in raising taxes, increasing regulations and proceeding with the government takeover of medicine and destruction of small business. But they aren’t doing that. Instead, Republicans are advocating the same policies they do when a Republican administration is in power: lower taxes, less regulation, a strong national defense. Democrats and Republicans disagree, of course, as to how economic growth can best be promoted. The disagreement that is now playing out in Washington is a continuation of the same debate we have witnessed for the past forty to fifty years.
Beyond that easily-dismissed charge, what do the authors have to say? They allege that Republicans have adopted a “politics as warfare” philosophy that is unprecedented in American history and amounts, really, to sedition:

There is a deep apprehension that fundamental American standards of proper political conduct and ethical political behavior are increasingly being violated.
The key feature that distinguishes the increasingly extremist perspective of today’s Republican Party from the standards of political behavior we have traditionally considered proper in America is the view that politics is–quite literally, and not metaphorically–a kind of warfare and political opponents are literally “enemies.”

Barack Obama, October 2010:

If Latinos sit out the election instead of, “we’re going to punish our enemies and we’re going to reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us” — if they don’t see that kind of upsurge in voting in this election, then I think it’s going to be harder.

So the Democrats are engaging in “politics as warfare”? Apparently that isn’t what the authors have in mind. They continue:

This “politics as warfare” perspective has historically been the hallmark of many extremist political parties of both the ideological left and ideological right–parties ranging from the American Communist Party to the French National Front.

Wow. So what, exactly, have the Republicans done that merits comparisons with the Communist Party? Here are some of the hallmarks of “politics as warfare:”

* In the politics as warfare perspective extralegal measures, up to and including violence, are tacitly endorsed as a legitimate means to achieve a party’s political aims if democratic means are insufficient to obtain its objectives.
* In the politics as warfare perspective all major social problems are caused by the deliberate, malevolent acts of powerful elites with nefarious motives. An evil “them” is the cause of all society’s ills.
* In the politics as warfare perspective the political party’s philosophy and basic strategy is inerrant–it cannot be wrong. The result is the creation of a closed system of ideologically controlled “news” that creates an alternative reality.
* In the politics as warfare perspective standard norms of honesty are irrelevant. Lying and the use of false propaganda are considered necessary and acceptable. The “truth” is what serves to advance the party’s objectives.
* In the politics as warfare perspective the creation of contrived “incidents” or deliberate provocations are acceptable. Because the adherent of this view “knows” that his or her opponents are fundamentally evil, even concocted or staged incidents are still morally and ethically “true.” The distinction between facts and distortions disappears.

There is more, but you get the picture. Republicans are prone to violence, inhabit an alternative reality, and constantly lie. (I’m not quite sure what the “contrived ‘incidents’” are.) So those are the charges; what is the evidence? It is remarkably thin:

It is easy to see examples of the various politics as warfare- based views and tactics listed above directly reflected in the statements and actions of the extreme wing of Republican coalition–they range from Michelle Bachmann and Sharon Angle’s winking at violence with references to “second amendment remedies”…

Sharron Angle did once refer to “Second Amendment remedies,” Michele Bachmann never has. The idea that either Bachmann or Angle has “winked at violence” is ridiculous. To begin with, what violence? A large majority of all political violence in the United States in recent years has been perpetrated by liberals (often union goons) with Republicans, conservatives and Tea Party activists as the victims. All Michele Bachmann has ever done is advocate tirelessly for conservative principles and beat Democrats at the polls; hence the bitter hatred with which she is viewed by liberals like the authors of this “strategy memo.”

…to Andrew Breitbart’s deliberate editing of a video to smear Shirley Sherrod…

This is a lie. Breitbart did no such thing.

Glen Beck’s suggesting that George Soros was a Nazi collaborator…

Actually, Beck paraphrased Soros’s own description of his youth during World War II on 60 Minutes, except that he added, “Here’s a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps.” I don’t think that is a fair characterization of Soros’s account, but does it justify the authors’ claim about “politics as warfare”? Obviously not.

…Fox News’ tolerating attacks on Obama as equivalent to Hitler…

Really? Like most Democrat attacks on Fox News, this smear is intended for those who never actually watch Fox. Every Fox host I’ve seen would dismiss as ridiculous any claimed analogy between Obama and Hitler. The same cannot be said, however, of MSNBC during the Bush administration.

…and airing repeated suggestions that the miniscule New Black Panthers present a real and genuine national threat of stolen elections…

This one is pretty funny. Here we have an actual threat of violence–thugs armed with billy clubs forming a gauntlet in front of a polling place–on behalf of Democratic Party candidates, and these Democrats think that if you oppose that sort of intimidation, you are engaging in “politics as warfare,” just like a Communist or Nazi party–an exact inversion of the truth.

…and Grover Norquist’s endorsement of a government shutdown over extending the debt limit, despite the genuine dangers this poses to international financial stability.

How pathetic! The authors are trying to show that Republicans are engaged in “warfare,” an unprecedented attack on American political traditions, and a flirtation, or worse, with violence, and this is the best they can do? I have no opinion on whether it is a good idea or a bad idea to refuse to extend the federal debt limit so as to enable even more deficit spending, but it is safe to say that neither side of that debate is engaged in “politics as warfare,” like the Communists.
That’s it. Seriously. That’s all the “warfare” the authors can come up with. They continue with this observation:

Republican leaders are now under enormous pressure to maintain a very belligerent, warlike rhetoric and style in all their activities. John Boehner is, after all, in the line of succession begun by Newt Gingrich, the first Republican congressional leader to explicitly argue for politics as a form of warfare (In 1994 Gingrich said: “This war [between liberals and conservatives] has to be fought with the scale and duration and savagery that is only true of civil wars”)…

Actually, Gingrich said that in 1988, after Senate Democrats disgracefully slandered Robert Bork–a genuine instance of politics as warfare. His next words were, “While we are lucky in this country that our civil wars are fought at the ballot box, not on the battlefields, nonetheless this is a civil war.” But what, exactly, is the point here? The authors resurrect Newt Gingrich’s most incendiary quote of the last 30 years and it is supposed to be a news flash? Why isn’t the proper inference that the Republicans’ Congressional leadership has gotten more moderate? They continue:

…and Tom DeLay, who now faces a prison sentence for his own indifference to the legal prohibitions against hyper-partisan scorched-earth tactics.

Actually, DeLay was convicted of a specific, technical violation of Texas campaign finance law. That conviction was unjust and, we hope, will be reversed. DeLay’s prosecution was politically motivated–an instance of the Democrats’ effort to criminalize opposition to their hegemony, or, one might say, the Democrats’ waging of politics as warfare. But again, this isn’t exactly news.
The authors have one more bit of “evidence” to offer:

Here is just one recent example of how deeply the politics as warfare perspective has become embedded in the Republican worldview. On November 29th Rep. Joe Barton, seeking support to become head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee told the Republican leadership:5 “Speaker Boehner is our Dwight Eisenhower in the battle against the Obama Administration. Majority Leader Cantor is our Omar Bradley. I want to be George Patton–put anything in my scope and I will shoot it.”

So the use of any military metaphor is a sign of “politics as warfare,” an unprecedented departure from American political traditions? That, again, is plainly silly: one could easily recite hundreds instances of use of military metaphors by politicians of both parties, dating back for two centuries. Or do these Democratic strategists seriously believe that Congressman Barton was proposing to shoot Democrats?
In fact, if one were looking for over-the-top political rhetoric, Democratic politicians and pundits would provide a far more fertile field than Republicans. The soon-to-be-departed Alan Grayson alone has outdone the entire Republican Party. It was a Democratic radio network, not a Republican one, that featured assassination humor; it is a Democratic cable news channel, not a Republican one, that peddles hysteria and brands anyone who disagrees as the “worst person in the world.” It is Democrats, not Republicans, who are so lost in a fog of hatred that more than one-third of them say that September 11 was an inside job.
So this Democratic line of attack is, if possible, even sillier than usual. But what is the point? The “strategy memo” went out to an audience of Democrats (and a few political junkies like me). Presumably the authors are not so out of touch with reality as to believe that they have made a persuasive case. Rather, one guesses that this is just one of many efforts to coordinate the party’s talking points. No doubt “politics as warfare” is a theme that Democrats will try to sell to voters over the coming months. But they will have to enforce a considerably higher standard of conduct in their own ranks if they want anyone to take them seriously.

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