The poison in our politics

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Human political history has witnessed some really bad actors. Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Nicolae Ceausescu and Pol Pot come to mind. The United States has never experienced the sort of deranged depravity that led these men to slaughter millions of their own citizens.

This is not to say that American political leaders have not made some big mistakes. Legalized human slavery was sustained for over two centuries, and native populations were deprived of their lives and lands. Egregious affronts to human dignity and freedom, to be sure, but committed largely out of ignorance rather than venality. No doubt our population has its share of depraved and mentally deranged people. We are not immune from those tragedies of the human condition (witness the recent shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin). But we have somehow managed to keep those people from positions of power. Perhaps it’s part of the genius, or good fortune, of our constitutional, republican democracy.

But you would hardly know it from our political campaigns and media pundits.

The blogosphere is filled with confident assertions that Mitt Romney hates women, gays and blacks. In fact it seems he hates everyone except the rich, for whose exclusive benefit he is running for president so he can lower their taxes while increasing the taxes paid by the middle class. Meanwhile bloggers and activists on the right claim that President Obama hates America and the Constitution and seeks to weaken the United States and turn everything over to the United Nations.

The political commentariat is scarcely less extreme than those unrestrained by editors and advertisers, who, one would think, might demand a few ounces of responsibility and credibility.

The New York Times’ twin towers of reason, Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman, have not shirked when it comes to attributing ill will to those with whom they disagree. After Paul Ryan was named as Mitt Romney’s running mate, Dowd was quick to assert that “[b]eyond the even-keeled Ryan mien lurks full-tilt virulence.” The word “virulent” derives from the Latin virulentus, meaning “full of poison.” One might reasonably say that of Hitler, but of a Republican repeatedly elected by large margins in a Democratic-leaning district?

Krugman, not to be outdone, wrote: “The question now is whether Mr. Ryan’s undeserved reputation for honesty and fiscal responsibility can survive his participation in a deeply dishonest and irresponsible presidential campaign.” “Mr. Ryan,” says Krugman, “isn’t a serious man — he just plays one on TV.” In other words, the only political official in Washington, from either party, who has undertaken to prepare a comprehensive budget for the United States government is a liar, and frivolous to boot.

And it has become routine for both Internet and mainstream media pundits to assert as fact that Romney and Ryan, along with most Republicans, are racists. Rob Redding confidently and self-righteously makes that claim in his new book “Disrupter.”

Meanwhile, it is equally commonplace for the political right to claim that President Obama is a socialist, or maybe even a communist, with ambitions to destroy America as we know it. Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show, “I think it can now be said, without equivocation — without equivocation — that this man hates this country. He is trying — Barack Obama is trying — to dismantle, brick by brick, the American dream.” Glenn Beck compared an Obama campaign film narrated by actor Tom Hanks to the work of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. Sarah Palin told Sean Hannity on Fox News that “[w]hat Barack Obama seems to want to do is go back to before those days when we were in different classes based on income, based on color of skin.”

This is all unmitigated nonsense. Worse, to borrow a word from Maureen Dowd, it is virulent — it is poisoning our politics.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are not racists. They do not hate women. Barack Obama does not want to destroy America. These are not conniving, malevolent men. They are men with serious and deep differences of opinion about our country’s core objectives and government’s role in their pursuit.

Those differences are what we should be talking about. Obama believes government should play a major role in managing the economy. Romney believes government should provide a legal and regulatory framework within which economic choices are made in response to market signals. Obama believes the wealthy are not paying their fair share and that more wealth can be redistributed without discouraging entrepreneurship and productivity. Romney believes the prospect of becoming wealthy inspires creativity and hard work while the wealthy invest in job creation benefiting the poor and middle class. Obama believes the Constitution is a living document that must be flexible if government is to meet modern challenges. Romney believes the Constitution places clear limits on government power and that respecting those limits is essential to protecting the liberties on which a free society and a prosperous economy depend.

These and other divergent views lead the two presidential candidates to very different conclusions about taxes, spending, health care, regulation and all of the other questions the victor will face in the White House. Those questions, not outrageous and defamatory ad hominems, should dominate our public discussions between now and November. But don’t hold your breath.

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.

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