Before the full scope of the tragedy at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' (D-AZ) event in Tucson this weekend had been realized, the media were buzzing about what was to be done. The debate quickly landed on issues of tone and violent language and maps with crosshairs and who's to blame and who isn't. Loud and angry confrontations broke out over whether the tone of our national discourse motivated a lone gunman. Such things are difficult to determine with any sort of accuracy. Regardless, the occasion of a brutal attack on a politician and her constituents is as good a reason as any to reexamine how we discuss politics in America.
It's easy to get wrapped up in your own cynicism, to hear the impassioned calls to curtail the talk radio bomb-throwing and Fox News scare-mongering that for years have provided the background noise to our national discourse, and be utterly and justifiably unsurprised when the volume is instead turned up. Or you can feel frustrated for harboring the hope that if any good could possibly be leached from a horrific act of violence it would perhaps be that the pundits and partisans might tone it down a bit, and then seeing that hope dashed by the immediate resumption of scathing vitriol.
I can confess to experiencing both of these contradictory emotions in the past week. But after watching President Obama's speech at the memorial service in Tucson and seeing the right-wing reaction to it, it has become clear that calls for changing the tone of our political discourse invariably fail because they place the responsibility on the same hyperpartisan actors who are paid quite well to debase it.
And let's not fool ourselves with the forced symmetry of "both sides do it," which is all too often employed in the media's overriding quest for "balance" at the expense of accuracy. On Monday, the New Yorker's George Packer observed:
In fact, there is no balance -- none whatsoever. Only one side has made the rhetoric of armed revolt against an oppressive tyranny the guiding spirit of its grassroots movement and its midterm campaign. Only one side routinely invokes the Second Amendment as a form of swagger and intimidation, not-so-coyly conflating rights with threats. Only one side's activists bring guns to democratic political gatherings. Only one side has a popular national TV host who uses his platform to indoctrinate viewers in the conviction that the President is an alien, totalitarian menace to the country. Only one side fills the AM waves with rage and incendiary falsehoods. Only one side has an iconic leader, with a devoted grassroots following, who can't stop using violent imagery and dividing her countrymen into us and them, real and fake. Any sentient American knows which side that is; to argue otherwise is disingenuous.
Consider, briefly, Rush Limbaugh, who can make a legitimate claim to being the most influential pundit in America. In response to the pleas for civility that arose in the aftermath of the shooting, Limbaugh went on a deliberate crusade to make AM radio as ugly as possible. He said the alleged shooter has the support of the Democratic Party, intimated that the health care reform bill was intended to foment violence of the sort we saw in Arizona, brashly declared "we don't need to heal," and attacked the president for delivering hopeful news about Rep. Giffords' recovery.
Sentiments such as these are ineffably crass and are antithetical to calls for "more civility" -- but what else should we expect from Rush Limbaugh? As if to reaffirm that his existence is dedicated to poisoning public dialogue, he even revisited this week one of his low watermarks from years past, defending his attacks on Michael J. Fox's struggle with Parkinson's Disease.
So no, we can not expect right-wing pundits to police their own rhetoric. But if the punditry won't change on its own, what's to be done? The hope lies instead in drawing contrasts and hopefully, by doing so, changing how people come to view political dialogue.
A good example can be found in the right's longstanding efforts to impugn President Obama's patriotism. The idea of "American exceptionalism" has been used as a cudgel against the president since before his election, and it's had some effect -- a poll from late 2009 found that 26 percent of Americans (including 48 percent of Republicans) did not believe that Obama "loves America." The issue of Obama's patriotic bona fides has promised to be the major talking point of the 2012 Republican presidential primary. Before this week, it was commonplace for conservative pundits and politicians to blithely assert Obama's anti-American leanings and not face any scrutiny for the allegation.
But the shock of Saturday's shootings left America looking to the president for guidance, and his speech urged the country to find solace in the greatness of American strength and decency. That message made the churlish attacks on Obama's patriotism look even pettier and more divorced from reality than they already are. The desperate, false attacks on Obama's speech from his determinedly partisan detractors were aggressively debunked by the mainstream press and even denounced by right-wing bloggers. It was one of those rare moments in politics in which reality scored a crushing defeat over caricature.
That's where the power to affect positive change in the discourse lies. This week America saw the overheated rhetoric of the right for what it is: misleading, incendiary, and false. But the conservative media aren't going to pack up their chalkboards and golden microphones anytime soon, so it's up to the mainstream press to continue being as aggressive in challenging those distortions as the right is in promulgating them.
Of course, it's entirely likely that this moment of clarity will remain just that -- a moment. And it's certainly not encouraging that the media have, to date, been as (if not more) likely to adopt false right-wing narratives as debunk them. But that's no reason to give up hope, and it's certainly no reason to stop telling the truth.