Poisonous Political Atmosphere Is Unhealthy

This is really, really hard to write. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) is my friend. I spent time with her, and her husband, Mark Kelly, less than two weeks ago. We talked about the debased state of discourse in the country, the awful and degrading nature of campaigns, including the really despicable one run against her last year, the threats she received after she voted for the health care reform bill--and the wonderful satisfaction of public service and the need to encourage more of our best and brightest to run for office and serve in government.

My kids have, since they first encountered her, viewed Gabby as a role model--this from kids pretty jaded by a lifetime spent around politics in Washington, D.C. The entire country is traumatized by what has happened to her. I cannot get out of my head images of her--vibrant, smiling, engaged--from just days before this awful tragedy.

There is no shame anymore, no punishment for those who step over the line with unacceptable charges or conduct.

Like so many others, I also cannot get out of my head the persistent fear over the past couple of years especially that the poisonous discourse in our politics in and out of Washington was cultivating an atmosphere that would encourage extremists and mentally unstable people to do bad things. I accept as a premise that Jared Loughner is not a right-wing ideologue, or most likely an ideologue of any identifiable, coherent viewpoint. He is a deeply troubled and mentally ill person. Perhaps he would have acted even without the outrageous and over-the-top rhetoric that has dominated talk radio, cable television news, and even the House and Senate.

But when you have pundits accusing whole classes of Americans of treason in best-selling books, a member of Congress calling the Speaker of the House a "domestic enemy of the Constitution," a former vice presidential nominee calling 20 lawmakers (including Gabby Giffords) targets and putting their districts under cross hairs on a website, yahoos carrying assault weapons to presidential appearances, members of each party accusing the other side of wanting other Americans to die under their various health care alternatives, it is cultivating an atmosphere that is truly unhealthy. Of course, 99.99 percent of Americans will ignore the vitriol, shrug it off or harbor their resentments in this tribal warfare quietly. But for the malcontents, genuine extremists and the unstable--for the Timothy McVeighs and Jared Loughners among us--it puts ideas into the ether that are like a potent fertilizer for poison to grow.

Then there is the farce of the birther movement. To believe that the president of the United States was not born in this country is to believe that there was a vast conspiracy hatched more than 49 years ago, that included in it the publishers and editors of the two Honolulu newspapers to print false birth announcements so that Barack Obama could be smuggled into Hawaii from Kenya via Indonesia and then groomed as a Manchurian candidate to emerge decades later to become president and undermine America from within. It is ridiculous, but it has not been immediately and totally denounced by all opinion leaders. Instead, there is just enough hedging to encourage the movement and to plant a seed of doubt about the very legitimacy of Obama's presidency.

We have always had our outrageous demagogues, from Father Charles Coughlin spewing hatred on the radio in the 1930s to Sen. Theodore Bilbo (D-Miss.) spewing racist and white supremacist garbage on the Senate floor in the 1940s. Bilbo's rhetoric no doubt contributed to violence and lynchings. But he was ostracized in the Senate, denounced by his own state colleague in the Senate and relegated to a minor committee. In other words, there was at least the concept of shame. There is no shame anymore, no punishment for those who step over the line with unacceptable charges or conduct. That the House did not step forward and overwhelmingly reprimand or even censure Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) for shouting "You lie!" at the president from the House floor is a sign of how we have redefined our common decency and respect for leaders and institutions.

We will no doubt get a moratorium on some of the worst charges and harsh accusations, for weeks or months. I would be very surprised if it lasted beyond that. What we need to do is rebuild a sense of shame so when media commentators and bookers and political actors come out of their shells again they understand there is some price to pay for being uncivil in our civil society.

Second, I hope, without much optimism, that we can also get at least one small reform--namely, that multi-bullet magazines, designed not for sporting purposes, target practice or self-defense, but only for killing or maiming lots of people, will be banned once again. It is incomprehensible to me that gun rights advocates can't show even the slightest balance to protect lives, with a change that has nothing to do with the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment.

Third, I hope we can get a new dialogue about the mental health laws in the country that make it so difficult to get treatment for troubled individuals who, as a consequence of their illness, do not believe they are sick and refuse treatment and medication. The laws in the name of protecting the civil liberties of the mentally ill cause untold heartache and pain to those who are ill, to their families and to the society.

Finally, I hope it will not be too long before we can welcome Gabby back to the Hill, to add her considerable measure of warmth, decency and civility to a place that desperately needs it, and her.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Photo Phiend/Creative Commons

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
  • Phone: 202-862-5893
    Email: nornstein@aei.org
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