Political discourse must improve, but let’s not overreach

January 17, 2011

In the aftermath of last week’s shooting in Tuscon, Arizona, some people have been quick to heap some degree of responsibility for the horrendous event on right wing leaders like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Sharron Angle, and Michelle Bachmann. A good number of Americans claim violence-charged rhetoric practiced by those four public figures is at least partially responsible for creating the vicious environment that led Jared Lee Loughner to critically wound Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, injure more than a dozen, and kill six others.

The harsh rhetoric (and symbolism) people speak of is exemplified by the following. Palin once told her supporters “Don’t Retreat; Reload!,” and also created a map with a gun target on Giffords’ district. Beck has consistently used war-like language . Angle agreed with an interviewer that there are “domestic enemies” in Congress and remarked that concerned citizens might turn to “Second Amendment remedies,” following that by stating that Harry Reid was the first person that needed to be taken out. And Bachmann has called for her supporters to be “armed and dangerous.”

We have no reason to believe that any of the above is causally linked to the shooting. This is not necessarily because evidence does not exist. We simply do not yet know, as the investigation is just getting underway (I suspect we will never know, if only because it is very difficult to directly link political rhetoric to a single crime). So, for the sake of this essay let’s consider that the rhetoric from Palin, Beck, Angle, and Bachmann, is not tied to the Giffords shooting whatsoever.** Let’s focus on the rhetoric and its impact on political discourse.

There are three main problems with the form of speech we are considering. First, while this rhetoric might not be directly linked to last week’s act, it certainly doesn’t do anything to lessen the chances of violence. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has aptly described it as “eliminationist rhetoric,” in which others are not merely wrong, but are no longer within our circle of moral concern. It is not hard to ponder the potential consequences of thinking this way. Even if the shooter was driven by some other motive, the aforementioned leaders have created a hyper-charged political environment that increases the chances of people engaging in violent political acts (though these acts might never happen due to a range of other factors, like being foiled by law enforcement). Research seems to bear this out .

Second, eliminationist rhetoric creates an environment where lawmakers and their families are scared for their lives. Politico.com reported via FBI documents that threats against members of Congress were up by 300 percent in the second half of 2010. In Arizona specifically, political leaders and judges were consistently getting death threats (read more here and here ). This undoubtedly influences a politician’s ability to speak his or her mind about any issue, especially hot-button ones.

Which brings me to the third problem: this rhetoric is inherently dangerous in an open democracy that depends on citizens constantly being in dialogue. It does not create the atmosphere where we might have constructive political discourse that could help us solve some of our daunting problems.

We are not forced to accept this landscape. We can change things. We live in a sharply divided social climate, but we have more in common than we think (for more on this point, I suggest the introduction of this book ). And while we might stoutly disagree with others, we can’t let ourselves so easily place fellow Americans – fellow human beings – outside the domain of our moral concern. We can state our disagreements over ideas without so much personal aggression. Indeed, we have no other choice if we truly desire to make a better country.

But let us not go too far and only be willing to accept a political discourse that is nice and neat. The problem with so-called eliminationist rhetoric is not that it is ugly; it is that it goes well beyond ugly. As Keith Olbermann said , “the (current) rhetoric has devolved and descended, past the ugly and past the threatening and past the fantastic and into the imminently murderous.” It would be one thing if the four people mentioned above were passionately engaged in serious and heated political debate about significant issues. Instead, they have stepped well beyond that confine.

Politics has always been, and will remain, both intense and partially if not mostly unpleasant. This is the very nature of political interactions. We bring our most important beliefs and values to the political square, and firmly promote and defend them in an effort to create the social and political order we want. In doing this, we must face people, principles and laws that we strongly disagree with. Sometimes we use insults and poor wording. Some of this is understandable, if not justified; some of it is neither. But this state of affairs is acceptable so long as we are still focused on discussing the matters that most influence our national life. Within that framework, we can accept some ugliness, and a few mistakes. The recent problems have emerged because people have often stepped well outside that framework.

Yet despite the fact that American politics is and will remain unpleasant, we can afford to turn a soft corner on language use. Words matter, and while our language can never be perfect, we need not be monsters. Recognition of this distinction would be the first step in the right direction. Even FOX News President Roger Ailes has told his employees to “tone it down.” Unfortunately, it took the murder of six people, and the injuries of more than a dozen others, to wake Americans from their zombie-like walk into the rhetorical abyss. Hopefully, we will awaken before it is too late.

** Still, Palin’s reaction to the shooting is telling. Immediately following the tragedy, the Web site hosting the gun scope map, www.takebackthe20.com, was taken down (as of this writing, it is still down).

Note: this essay was originally published on the blog Rationally Speaking.



#1 Andrew (Guest) on Monday January 17, 2011 at 2:42pm

CFI’s slanted partisan politics continue to disturb me and I’ll remain a non-donating fellow-traveller in skeptical inquiry as long as this remains true.

You bring up Palin’s “target” map, but don’t mention that Democrats used an almost identical map to target their opponents. You mention Bachmann’s “armed and dangerous” comment completely lacking any context (she was specifically referring to wanting her supporters to be “armed” with information and dangerous to her opponent’s agenda.

You refuse to acknowledge that the rhetoric used on both sides has been quite inflammatory for years. You only point to right wing use of such language.

Keith Olbermann says this has descended to murderous, but he’s the one who label’s someone he doesn’t agree with as “the worst person in the world” every night. He calls for conciliation, but in spite of having no evidence supporting the view that right wing rhetoric had anything to do with this insane killer’s motive, he continues to blame the Right for it, and has guests on (such as Sheriff Dupnik) who make outrageous statements about the causal relationship of this incident to the rhetoric of the Right. Such statements in the absence of evidence are beyond the pale.

Meanwhile, I’ve seen supporters of the Left defending a fellow who was a victim in the Arizona shooting who happens also to be a Democratic political operative (I’m speaking of Fuller here, just to be clear) who has been making similar accusations about the violent right-wing rhetoric for the past week but who also made an overt threat against someone he disagreed with. This was caught on video and witnessed by many people. But his behavior is dismissed. While I can understand that he was undergoing some stress following the shooting, his ongoing support of the left-wing partisan attacks blaming right-wing rhetoric for the shooting, along with his overt threats in a public forum can’t be defended.

Again, I’m disturbed that an organization supposedly dedicated to free inquiry and open-mindedness has been so slanted in its statements on this event and the coverage of it. It’s a shame.

Andrew Millard

#2 Stephanie (Guest) on Monday January 17, 2011 at 5:14pm

Mr. Millard:

Very well said.  The reality of it is that we listened to hate filled rhetoric for eight years while Bush was president.  The people responsible for it called themselves “progressive”.  I ignored this nonsense under Bush (who I never cared for - I just never went for conspiracy theories), and I ignore it now.  Rude people can’t get me to kill - I am not mentally ill.  All this type of discourse does to me is get me to change the channel. 

I also do not donate to CFI, the obvious bias and the dishonesty that comes with it is why.  Honesty means honestly looking at yourself.  And pointing the finger at the right when the left has been doing this for a long time, with a blind eye from progressives - it keeps my television set turned off.

Free Inquiry should be free in its inquiry, and that inclues allowing some of its own theology to be challenged.  I’m close to dropping the magazing due to poor quality.

I have lost my faith, not my reason.


#3 Nexcerpt on Monday January 17, 2011 at 6:03pm

Andrew, greater adherence to facts will help your argument, especially in this venue.  For example, the map Democrats used was from 2004, and contained graphics of archery targets—such as we may recognize from summer camp.  Palin’s map displayed the crosshairs of a scope used on a hunter’s or sniper’s rifle.  And, Bachman weakly recast her threatening language (as Palin did her map’s symbolism) only after public condemnation.

For perspective, I recommend:


Read that entire disturbing list, then try to match any ~tenth~ of it with ~equivalent~ focus from the left.  Please provide actual data:  dates, names, quotes.

I’ve discovered attempts at several far right sites, and they’re laughable.  It’s not enough to give two examples of linguistic metaphors from the left and say, “See, they’re the same!”  It’s not sufficient to cite five minor incidents driven by left-leaning rhetoric over the past fifteen years—or a comment made by a person who’s been shot—and pretend the case is won. 

To defend your position, it will be necessary to match at least 100+ cases of hateful rhetoric, violent results, and actual cluster murders in the past two years, all of which—as outlined in the link—the right has provided with increasing vitriol, following primarily the form of Palin and the Tea Party.

I’m not saying there’s something inherently violent about the right.  Most people on the right are not violent.  And yet, they permit those who ~lead~ the party they ~follow~ to behave that way.

It could be convincing to cite public calls for government overthrow and destruction, military coups and sedition, hangings and lynchings, political assassination—and multiple actual cluster ~murders~—by left-wing US extremists in the past two years.  However, once we accept that such evidence does not exist, it will be easier to grasp the reality in which society is now steeped.

#4 richbh on Monday January 17, 2011 at 9:04pm

#1, #2 and #3 all express cogent and respectable viewpoints, and I’m happy to read them.

What concerns me during this debate is not the pointing of fingers - politicians have always pointed fingers in blame and that will probably never stop.

Nor am I concerned that in the aftermath of this tragedy and the discussion it has engendered will any lasting impression be made on the habit of the American public to forget the lessons of the past: After all, heated political rhetoric rises always when our two political parties are struggling to solve the issues that occupy the “center ground” of the current political, social and economic landscape.

What concerns me is that our leaders may miss this prime opportunity to channel the discussion into meaningful compromises that will benefit the nation - its citizens and its businesses - as a whole.

Our national debt is unmanageable yet we borrow billions to pay the interest on the trillions we owe. That’s just absurd.

Our healthcare costs are spiraling out of control, yet every citizen demands the best healthcare on the planet without being able to pay for it.

Our wars are costly beyond comprehension and are paid for with trillions of dollars that never show up on the national budget.

The United States is clearly spending itself to death - just as the USSR spent itself to death.

Is it possible to turn the nation around? Even if solutions are available, do our leaders have the guts and foresight to implement those solutions?

Let us lay the rhetoric aside: those elected are those we have elected and it is their job and responsibility and duty to find solutions and compromises that will ensure the US survives.

#5 Bruce Gorton on Tuesday January 18, 2011 at 1:51am

Speaking as somebody outside of America:

The rhetoric from the right has been far more violent, and largely far less informed.

I mean take the gun debate for example - most of the American left consider that debate lost and don’t really care all that much about it.

Even arch-lefty Michael Moore concluded that guns don’t lead to greater degrees of violence. There is no longer any real pressure from the left to ban guns.

Sure, there are leftwingers who would like to ban guns, but there are also rightwingers who would like to ban booze, and in both cases they recognise it isn’t going to happen any time soon.

But the rightwing has for decades made defending guns a central platform. This fear of losing their guns has led to shootings - for example Richard Poplawski in 2009.

Where the left has been critical of the right there have largely been legitimate complaints - from Bush’s admitted policies regarding torture to the Patriot Act, to economic policies.

In 2004 I was active on a progressive website where there was a debate on economic policy - with one of the rightwing posters saying that his house was gaining value like mad so the Democrats could suck it.

One of the posters there pointed out it was a bubble, and that the derivatives market and subprime-loans fueling the bubble wasn’t going to last forever. Eventually the debts were going to fall due.

One major market crash later and I still remember that ordinary people on the left saw the crash coming long before the rightwing media started blaming Obama for it.

Even though it happened in Bush’s term.

The rightwing in America have been distinctly reluctant to take responsibility for anything, ever. For example, take 9/11, this happened well into Bush’s reign, and yet the instant afterwards was “don’t play politics.”

The liberal side of the fence obliged only to end up getting blamed for the attack even though the Republicans held all three houses of government.

Later evidence would show that Clinton had even warned his successor of the threat posed by Osama Bin Laden.

This is the same rightwing that makes a big thing about personal responsibility, yet whenever they use those words it appears to me to be in order to avoid taking any for their decisions.

If single mothers can’t afford to raise their kids? Personal responsibility - never mind that those same single mothers are not allowed to get a divorce and are demonised for not spending enough time with their kids if they get jobs.

A further issue is that the right are a lot less balanced in their criticism. Glenn Greenwald is a fairly prominent leftwing blogger - and now that Obama is in power he is just as willing to criticise Obama as he was Bush.

The same could be said of the comic strip Tom Tomorrow. Paul Krugman has criticised Obama’s economic policies. The criticism from the left appears to be far more grounded in actual policy positions than personalities.

The right meanwhile tended throughout Bush’s presidency to defend him, deflecting criticisms by calling the critics haters and comparing liberals to Nazis. This wasn’t small time conservatives either, this is essentially Ann Coulter’s entire schtick.

Americans have noticed all of this. America’s people are not stupid, but they do not do anything about it. Why?

Because Americans as a whole are made to feel impotent in politics, are told not to be “haters” and thus effectively told to accept their lots in life, there is no sense of real power in the American people, the way there is in the rest of the first world, because there is no sense that the government is working for them.

This is stoked by anti-government fears from the rightwing, and the so-called leftwing party persuing compromises instead of mandates.

Note I am not arguing that the left should not be prepared to compromise, but the Democratic Party compromises on its leftwing mandates before they even get to the debating table, while the right sets their prime policies further right than what they actually want to achieve.

This leaves rightwing politicians far more effective even though their policies are far less popular, and the people who support the left’s policies feeling like they are being screwed over by their own party.

Leaving ordinary Americns feeling powerless, and desperate. America appears to take having a gun as being a substitute for having power, and with increasing regularity, that sense of powerlessness more than anything else appears to be what is driving certain Americans towards violent ends.

#6 Andrew (Guest) on Tuesday January 18, 2011 at 8:21am

Let me be clear right up front here - I neither advocate or endorse violence or hateful rhetoric from either side of the political spectrum. I abhor the kind of mean-spirited talk that has become too often the norm from the left AND the right.

@Nexcerpt: Careful. Your double standard is showing. Adherence to facts? Hows this (regarding Michelle Bachmann)?:

#7 Andrew (Guest) on Tuesday January 18, 2011 at 8:22am

My post was apparently cut off. Here’s the full text:

Let me be clear right up front here - I neither advocate or endorse violence or hateful rhetoric from either side of the political spectrum. I abhor the kind of mean-spirited talk that has become too often the norm from the left AND the right.

@Nexcerpt: Careful. Your double standard is showing. Adherence to facts? Hows this (regarding Michelle Bachmann)?:

#8 AndrewM64 on Tuesday January 18, 2011 at 8:29am

Ok. One more time, logged in. Sorry for the multiples:

My post was apparently cut off. Here’s the full text:

Let me be clear right up front here - I neither advocate or endorse violence or hateful rhetoric from either side of the political spectrum. I abhor the kind of mean-spirited talk that has become too often the norm from the left AND the right.

@Nexcerpt: Careful. Your double standard is showing. Adherence to facts? Hows this (regarding Michelle Bachmann)?: http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2011/01/028118.php

“For the record, here is what Michele said: ‘I’m going to have materials for people when they leave. I want people armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax, because we need to fight back.’ Yes, that’s right: she wanted Minnesotans to be armed with “materials”—facts and arguments—not guns. If this is the best example of “eliminationist rhetoric” that the far left can come up with, you can see how absurdly weak the claims of Krugman and his fellow haters are.”

There’s no need for me to match you example for example. We can all point to plenty of examples on both sides of people who have gone too far. But your list is full of people who, like Loughner himself, were simply crazy. Regardless of their ostensible political motivations (which in Loughner’s case seem to come mostly from the left) it is their underlying mental instability that is the real cause of their actions.

But all this discussion is pointless if we are simply going to go back and forth pointing fingers about which side is more violent or rhetorically vicious.

Liberal hate? We can point it out: http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2011/01/028124.php



And @Bruce: The media didn’t cover this issue much, so I’m unsurprised that someone speaking from outside America as Bruce is didn’t see it and only perceives the hate coming from the right. Double standard. But the fact that left-wingers were referring to George Bush as Bush-Hitler for years, and carrying vicious signs advocating violence through his entire presidency can’t be ignored. Both sides do it. I would think that supporters and members of an organization like CFI would have a little more critical eye toward what the media shows them.

There’s been an insistence that Loughner’s violence was a result of right-wing rhetoric, but all evidence seems to support just exactly the opposite. He was insane, but his beliefs seem to be driven from the left.

You want to associate crazy neo-Nazi white supremacists with the mainstream politics of the right - that doesn’t fly. Poplawski features prominently in Nexcerpts list, but according to Slate (http://www.slate.com/id/2215826/) his politics were a jumble of conspiracy paranoia.

Again, let me make clear here that I’m not defending the hate-speech or advocacy of violence on the right, nor am I saying it doesn’t exist. I’m merely pointing out that it exists just as well on the left:


There are many more examples if you bother to look.

#9 Bruce Gorton (Guest) on Tuesday January 18, 2011 at 9:10am


The Neonazi movement is rightwing - as is another major element of Loughner ideology, the gold standard, as is the sort of anti-government conspiracy think.

Not the Tea Party variant, but the older Libertarian right that was dominant in 2005. This is consistent with his link to Alex Jones.

Now as to comparisons between Bush and Hitler I am not talking about people at protests - I am talking about mainstream rightwing opinion-makers. I am talking about the likes of Glenn Beck.

I just have not seen that from the Left and frankly it has not gotten the coverage that it has on the right.

#10 Bruce Gorton (Guest) on Tuesday January 18, 2011 at 9:27am

Also, I am not just going on TV - I am going on blogs, on what I hear through YouTube, Facebook, blogs etc… we are in the era of social media where the MSM doesn’t have quite the power it used to for a lot of people.

#11 Nexcerpt on Tuesday January 18, 2011 at 11:52am

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

#12 Michael De Dora on Tuesday January 18, 2011 at 3:27pm


Thank you for your comments. I’m going to confine my response to your first one. Hope this helps.

“CFI’s slanted partisan politics continue to disturb me and I’ll remain a non-donating fellow-traveller in skeptical inquiry as long as this remains true.”

As you might already know, CFI does not have a stated political position. The organization is dedicated to reason, science, and secular values, wherever that leads politically. Quite naturally, most CFI employees do have political views. Yet while my political views influence, for instance, my blog writings, they rarely if ever influence my work as executive director of CFI’s branch in New York City. My work in NYC centers on advancing reason, science, and secular values—again, wherever that leads politically.

“...but in spite of having no evidence supporting the view that right wing rhetoric had anything to do with this insane killer’s motive ...”

I know this sentence is about Olbermann, but *I* never wrote that there was evidence directly linking rightwing rhetoric to the killer’s motives. Check my third paragraph.

“You refuse to acknowledge that the rhetoric used on both sides has been quite inflammatory for years. You only point to right wing use of such language.”

I mentioned rightwing language because that’s what people have been discussing.

I acknowledge that harsh rhetoric has been used on both sides, for a long time. But I make what I think are two important distinctions here. First, I rarely hear such charged rhetoric from liberal or Democratic leaders, while I do hear it from rightwing leaders. Second, I am not praising some of the polarized rhetoric used by people like Olbermann. I’m not even saying it’s acceptable. I find it wrongheaded and unhelpful. But while that sort of rhetoric is undesirable, it’s not as undesirable as some of the stuff I hear from the right.

#13 AndrewM64 on Tuesday January 18, 2011 at 9:02pm


Thanks for your considered response. I have to respectfully continue to disagree however. While the organization of CFI may have an officially non-political stance, I have regularly received communications with political advocacy from CFIs OPP. They may separate themselves from it doing that, but they are political. Don’t get me wrong - I support some (though not all) of the policies they advocate. I also understand that your views don’t necessarily represent those of CFI as an organization. But discussions such as you opened up here where you are quite specifically taking sides in a debate that calls out one side as being at fault for something truly heinous (again, in advance of any evidence establishing any causal link - there’s no science here) when the other side definitely does engage in comparable behavior. Unlike some here, I’m not closing my eyes to either side. I recognize the ugliness on both sides.

In your original post you quote Olbermann positively but later you claim not to praise the kind of rhetoric he uses. I agree with many things that you said. We have a lot in common. We really want the same things (though we might disagree as to the best way to accomplish them.) As I noted, I’m a fellow traveler in skeptical thought and humanist values, but my experience with groups like CFI is that folks like me who don’t necessarily support the full left-wing agenda or agree with the demonization of those on the right are not terribly welcome.

As usual, I’m far more comfortable hanging around right-wing Christians than I am with left-wing skeptics and atheists, no matter how much I disagree with the first and agree with the second. They are just much friendlier. In my experience.

It’s too bad that you are so determined to stick it to the right. As I said, as long as that remains what’s most important to CFI, I’ll not support you.

#14 gray1 on Sunday January 23, 2011 at 10:02pm

As the old saying goes, “Never discuss religion or politics in polite company”.  The implication here is that should you insist upon doing so, the “polite” aspect will quickly evaporate.  The human animal will ultimately rise up to defend what he feels is his territory whether real or imagined often with a paranoia induced blindness to all reason or even a smigen of dignity.  This of course describes the other fellows involved in any given dispute and never ourselves, which clan, tribe or even loose gathering of like minded individuals (mob) shall always remain blameless in the face of the increasing levels of madness.

So what do we discuss herein… even if we agree as to almost all things we are not being polite to denigrate the opposition which is inevitable (regardless of how much they absolutely deserve it) but it has become something of a blood sport if you will pardon the purely metaphoric expression.

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