Many pundits and elected officials have condemned the violence of the past week. Have any of them asked whether they themselves contributed to it?
I don’t mean deliberately contributed, of course. Whatever you might think of our legislators and commentators, they do not generally encourage constituents to shoot up offices or mail white powder to their opponents.
But consider the climate that has built up over the past year. Early on in the healthcare debate, public figures raised the specter of death panels. Some encouraged the idea that Medicare isn’t a government program. The dreaded cry of “socialism”—which, thanks to U.S. history, ignites fear and loathing whenever it’s uttered—has come up early and often. So has “government takeover of healthcare.” Indeed, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Indiana) used the word takeover seven times in a short segment on last week’s PBS NewsHour.
Death panels. Socialism. Government takeover. These words shed no light on the specific defects of the legislation. Rather, they carry emotional weight, and the emotion they incite is fear. Fear, in turn, begets anger.
No wonder so many people are so angry. No wonder a few of them, lacking impulse control, cross the line between rhetorical fury and physical violence.
What would have happened if our public figures had cooled the rhetoric and tried to discuss specific proposals? We might have discovered the validity of a whole range of ideas, including those from “the other side.” Voters could have gained a more nuanced view of the pros and cons. Perhaps Republicans and Democrats could have collaborated with each other, resulting in better legislation.
As it is, the fractiousness of the past few Congresses created the climate for the nastiness of the healthcare debate—which, in turn, has had our society running at a fever pitch for more than a year.
Violence is deplorable. Rather than piously condemn it and then return to the language that fosters it, however, our public figures would do better to reconsider the current political climate, the words they use in the public square, and the kind of world we might have if we worked together rather than separately.