We have a long history of violence
We know about the angry outbursts against (mainly Democratic) lawmakers as Congress finished work last week on health care reform legislation. We know that protesters spat on at least one African-American member of Congress, yelled the "n" word a...
We know about the angry outbursts against (mainly Democratic) lawmakers as Congress finished work last week on health care reform legislation. We know that protesters spat on at least one African-American member of Congress, yelled the "n" word at another and used homophobic slurs against a third. We know lawmakers' home offices have suffered smashed and bullet-riddled windows. The FBI has been brought in to advise members of Congress how to deal with threats not only against their own lives, but against the lives of their families and children.
What we're less clear on is why this is happening and why now. Most of us would like to believe this is a case of first impression. We cling to the utopian vision of a peaceful citizenry that eschews vitriol. But as philosopher George Santayana wrote, "Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it." A cursory glance at American political history reveals it is rife with violence.
The first president of four presidents assassinated was Abraham Lincoln, whose fabled murder was committed by angry Confederate John Wilkes Booth in 1865. Sixteen years later, a deranged, disappointed office-seeker murdered James Garfield, without an apparent logical motive.
The 1901 assassination of William McKinley was committed by a self-described anarchist. The anarchist movement was a furious frenzy of immigrants and low-income Americans reacting violently to sudden riches for a few lucky industrialists during the era of industrialization.
Finally, Lee Harvey Oswald, designated by the Warren Commission as a mentally ill loner, killed President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
So the "movement mania" of the type we're seeing venomously unfurl today, is hardly without precedent.
Historian Richard Hofstadter described what he designated, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" in a 1964 article in Harper's Magazine:
"American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind .... The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent."
Hofstadter calls 1950's McCarthyism, and turn of the (20th) century populism two angry, radical, political movements led by right-wing minorities who terrorized peaceable majorities. There are many more such examples throughout American history, predecessors of today's vocal Tea Party crowd.
So while anger-driven political movements are not new, that is not to say that there is nothing new about today's venomous attacks on lawmakers. Clearly, the media amplify the anger. When someone watching a protest online or on TV sees other people threatening politicians, that makes more people think it's OK. Angry media figures (Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, et. al.) make matters worse by raising the temperature in order to gain attention and ratings.
Some politicians crossed over the line as well. One example is when Texas Republican Rep. Randy Neugebauer called another pro-life leader a "baby killer."
Another is when Sarah Palin urged supporters to "reload" to fight health care.
While Tea Party violence or racial or homophobic slurs are clearly unacceptable, that does not mean Tea Party protesters don't have some valid political points. Health care reform, regardless what Democratic sponsors say, is going to drive up expenses and therefore taxes at a time when we are already suffering massive deficits.
It's impossible to extinguish irrational anger, but not impossible to quell rational anger. The sooner Democrats and Republicans figure out how to bring angry protest to a peaceful resolution, the better off we'll all be.
-- Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail her at bonnieerbe@CompuServe.com .