The “Extremism” of Challenging the Government
The recent shooting of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords (and numerous others) in Tucson over the weekend has, predictably, brought on a wave of pundits, scholars, and journalists looking to score political points by exploiting the shooting in their favor. Economist Paul Krugman was quick to pin the shooting on the Right and their supposed hateful rhetoric, while Andrew Sullivan made reference to Sarah Palin’s use of a map with cross-hairs placed over the districts of Representatives (including Giffords’s) who had voted for Obamacare to condemn the “rhetorical excesses” of the Tea Party. Certain conservatives, on the other hand, are attempting to exonerate the right by trying desperately to make the killer, Jared Loughner, into a leftist even though he was, apparently, quite the fan of Ayn Rand .
Regardless as to the political ideology of a likely paranoid schizophrenic , the most interesting response to the shooting has indeed come from the left and their characterization of what should -and should not be- legitimate political speech. From the moment America realized what had happened in that grocery store parking lot, the protests from the left have been overwhelmingly clear: American political discourse is, apparently, violent and inciteful and will probably lead to more political killings as time goes on. Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, while careful not to place the blame for the attack purely on the shoulder’s of Tea Partiers, wrote that,
its politics increased the odds of something like it happening.
The implicit idea underlying Weisberg’s statement is that our democracy is so fragile that it simply cannot handle a few action verbs thrown here and there, as though words like “target” and “attack” are new in our long history of political rhetoric. Thankfully, Weisberg’s characterization of American politics is dead wrong. Our democracy is more mature than Weisberg wants to believe, and despite heated elections violence is incredibly rare. As Jack Shaffer wrote,
With the exception of Saturday’s slaughter, I’d wager that in the last 30 years there have been more acts of physical violence in the stands at Philadelphia Eagles home games than in American politics.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Weisberg’s response came when he seemed to imply that the very act of investigating the Constitutional limits of government is what defines right-wing “extremism”.
At the core of the far right’s culpability is its ongoing attack on the legitimacy of U.S. government—a venomous campaign not so different from the backdrop to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Then it was focused on “government bureaucrats” and the ATF. This time it has been more about Obama’s birth certificate and health care reform. In either case, it expresses the dangerous idea that the federal government lacks valid authority. It is this, rather than violent rhetoric per se, that is the most dangerous aspect of right-wing extremism.
Although I admit that I had to reread that paragraph a few times to ensure I wasn’t going crazy, the truth seems to be that Weisberg actually considers questioning governmental authority not only to be on par with violent rhetoric, but actually far more pernicious because, he says, if government isn’t legitimate than rebellion becomes more acceptable and appealing. I’ll come back to this issue in more detail below, but after reading Weisberg’s comment I was curious to find out more about this guy. My first impression (because I like to think people are consistent) was that he might be some sort of nationalistic fascist. Someone, perhaps, like Mussolini who once summed up totalitarianism by stating,
Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.
So I did a little bit of homework on Jacob Weisberg and found that, thankfully, he appears to be as inconsistent as he is misleading. Weisberg, far from being an ardent defender of unlimited government power, seems to have spent most of the Bush-era aggressively attacking the Bush Administration’s unprecedented expansion of Federal authority on Constitutional grounds. He passionately seems to have disagreed with everything from warrantless wiretapping to the power to monitor communication between Federal prisoners and their lawyers without a warrant. In fact, he once wrote that,
…the president’s latest assertion that he alone can safeguard our civil liberties isn’t just disturbing and wrong. It’s downright un-American.
Is it just me, or does it sound as though Weisberg is expressing “the dangerous idea that the Federal government lacks valid authority”? It turns out that Weisberg is simply a hypocrite. He does accept the idea that the government has Constitutional limits, just not when it comes to progressive legislation. When it comes to challenging health care reform, however, watch out because you’re probably encouraging another McVeigh.
The Tea Party’s reaction to Obama’s health care reform law has been, to put it mildly, a bit heated. But so what? The left’s response to Bush’s anti-civil liberties policies was heated as well. Naomi Wolfe, one of the figure heads of the third wave feminist movement, even wrote a book suggesting strong similarities between Bush’s policies and Hitler’s. This isn’t to suggest that Wolfe was wrong, only that Weisberg is clearly incorrect when he asserts that challenging the legitimacy of certain government policies is somehow “extremist”. It isn’t, and there is a proud American heritage of challenging Federal power. That’s the way our system was designed to work. Weisberg is fooling himself if he really believes right-wing extremism stems from wanting to use Constitutional means to determine the legitimacy of legislation. Twenty-one states are now challenging Obamacare in Federal Courts. Is that really so extremist?
The Founders were brilliant enough to include numerous legal ways to challenge the validity of certain laws. An innumerable amount of court cases throughout U.S. history have struck down Federal government policies. It simply isn’t clear that challenging the legitimacy of a law makes it more probable some extremist will rise up and kill someone. Wanting to undermine a law legally does not undermine our system of government anymore than wishing Obama was out of office undermines our democracy.
Weisberg’s primary purpose is clear: smear the Tea Party at all costs. One can legitimately argue that Obamacare is Constitutional and that all the other expansions of Federal power under Obama are as well. That is a question for legal scholars and the Supreme Court to figure out. But attempting to label a group as “extremist” for having the nerve to read the Constitution and posit that- just maybe- the 200-year-old document isn’t being followed as it should be, is nothing if not cowardly and cheap. Progressives like Weisberg should be happy that people want to challenge the government in court, just as they themselves did under Bush. If they’re so convinced their policies are Constitutional they should relish the opportunity to prove that before the country. Unfortunately, people like Weisberg and Krugman are more concerned with inciting hatred against the Tea Party and “right-wing extremists” than they are with responsibly condemning Loughner and moving forward on the pressing issues of the day.