Violent Political Rhetoric Can Feed Political Violence

A New York Bomb Squad unit exits the Time Warner Building on October 24, 2018 where a suspected explosive device was found in the building after it was delivered to CNN’s New York bureau.

Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

We are just two weeks away from a close, high-stakes midterm election that could well determine the power — and foreshadow the fate — of a Trump presidency that almost everyone in both parties considers a momentous development in American politics. The temperature level among the political elites and among activists of the left and right across the country is reaching a fever point. And so the news of explosive devices being sent to the homes of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and CNN, shocking as it is, feels like a predictable lurch into madness in a country already half-crazed by political conflict.

It’s not even new. Days ago, a former member of the military was arrested for mailing ricin to the White House and other Trump administration officials. Last year, a gunman opened fire on GOP members of Congress while they were practicing for a softball game, nearly killing Representative Steve Scalise.

As a background to all this, consider how thoroughly the language of military conflict has taken over our political discourse. Voters are being “mobilized.” Resources are being “deployed” to “battleground states” where key races are “targeted” for “strategic strikes” via attack ads “launched” by political field marshals in some distant headquarters. Guerrilla warfare is undertaken by “dark ops” specialists utilizing social media and whisper networks. More than ever, opponents are enemies, and partisans are constantly warned against compromise and enjoined to be tough and merciless, and above all to avoid the weak moralism of “unilateral disarmament” and keep maniacally focused on the “conquest” of House and Senate seats.

We all have our theories of why politics increasingly feels like combat, and who is primarily to blame for the creeping savagery of political rhetoric. Back in 2011, when the tea party movement and its quasi-totalitarian ideology of Constitutional Conservatism appeared to be introducing a new and unforgiving tone in politics, two colleagues and I at The Democratic Strategist website published a memo deploring “politics as warfare,”…

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