Confronting the thuggish and racist reaction last week to the passage of the health care bill on the part of a few far out right wing fanatics, Republicans did their best to put the usual spin on excess: it’s a bipartisan thing, our members of Congress are also being threatened, Democrats are “playing the race card” (because they complain about racist epithets!) See — goes the familiar refrain — the reality is parity, so “both sides need to ratchet down the rhetoric.”
The sock-it-home closer for this absurd claim of parity between rabid right wing reactions that included mailing white powder and a threatening letter to one Democratic Congressman, cutting the gas line on a house belonging to the brother of another, and hurling a brick through still another’s district office, and putative left wing excesses, was that somebody had shot at the district office of Eric Cantor (House Republican Whip). Bottom line: maybe you Dems are getting bricks and simulated Anthrax, but we got loonies SHOOTING at us!
Only it never happened.
How the Republicans and their media flacks made the case that it did is a lesson in how the right wing media machine works by distorting facts and making a phony case loud enough going in that it never gets retracted going out, even after the truth becomes known. Most of the country will go on believing someone intentionally shot at Cantor’s office, long after police reports confirm that isn’t what occurred.
I had personal experience of how such hype works because I was on the Fox and Friends morning show Friday (giving cover for their claim that they are “fair and balanced”) when anchor Steve Doocy opened a segment focused on reactions to the health bill passage by asserting that someone had “pumped a bullet” through Cantor’s district office window. So both sides have plenty to answer for, right?
Except that nobody had “pumped a bullet” through Cantor’s window. I had read about the incident with care and could tell Doocy he needed to get the facts straight. Yes, a bullet had indeed penetrated Cantor’s office window, but police reports made clear from the outset that the bullet’s trajectory — penetrating the window high and landing on the floor just inside the window without even touching the blinds inside the window — was a sky high arc; that this had to have been a stray bullet that had come down randomly through the office window. Unless the shooter was a mortar expert and could fire in the air with clear knowledge of where the bullet would land (try it yourself if you think it’s possible!), this was an improbable accident. And Cantor had to have known it (these guys know about guns, right?)
But why miss the opportunity to turn an accident into a conspiracy, and turn a stray bullet into proof that the left is as nutty and violent as the right? During the break on Fox and Friends, Doocy rushed to the computer and opened the next segment by reading to me on the air from the Washington Post: see, it says a bullet had pierced the window! Except the argument was about the intentions of the shooter, and Doocy went on to read enough of the Post story to make clear that the bullet came almost straight down, and had to have been a stray. Next morning, the Saturday New York Times spelled it out in a headline reading “Police Say Stray Bullet Hit Office of Lawmaker.” Oops.
But here’s the point: anyone with knowledge of trajectories had to know the minute they read about the Cantor office case that this bullet was a spent round fired up in the air from another location and falling randomly, that no malicious intent could be imputed. But the coincidence was too good to ignore, so instead it became the Republicans’ primary piece of evidence for parity — that a violent rabble with left Democratic leanings was doing the same thing the violent rabble with right wing Republican leanings was doing — so we were ALL to blame, which means sort of that nobody’s to blame.
But Republicans have real responsibility to bear: they have engaged in a rhetoric of rage and resentment, claiming that, though they are the minority party, the democratically elected majority party was “ignoring America” and forcing its will on the country. Republicans have been sore losers of a most provocative kind, the Party of No running ads putting Democrats in the bulls eye, individual Members of Congress urging on cantankerous protesters outside the Capitol who ended up shouting racist and homophobic epithets, Sarah Palin barking “don’t retreat, reload!” — while Senator McCain nodded approvingly — and Nancy Pelosi’s image stuck on posters depicting her in front of a wall of flames.
Then there was Republican minority leader Boehner describing the health care victory as “Armageddon.” As in “end of the world” and “judgment day” and “punish the infidels!” Yes, President Obama had the good humor to react by saying he hadn’t yet noticed any heavenly asteroids announcing the end of the world. But the biblical rhetoric was hardly a laughing matter, and could be counted on to provoke right wing fundamentalists anticipating that epic battle between the forces of good and the Anti-Christ on that day of rapture that would leave all but the righteous behind.
What the Republicans need is a lesson in the difference between losing a vote in a democracy and ushering in Armageddon. In a democracy, the majority Party that wins both Chambers of Congress and the White House gets to pass legislation that defines its agenda. The minority party gets to be the loyal opposition and offer alternatives that, it hopes, might move the electorate to vote for it next time. It does not mean the minority demonizes those who legislate, or obstructs Congressional business and paralyze government. It’s not Armageddon but ‘they won this time, maybe we’ll win next time.’
The measure of a stable democracy is not how political parties win but how they lose. With grace, patience and respect for the process. And, to be sure, with a robust commitment to fight on vigorously to convince the public that this term’s loser should be next term’s winner. Losing means you got outvoted and need to win more votes next time — not to pretend the majority that licked you is some treasonous gang pushing to country down the road to doomsday.
The tale of the bullet is a story about bad losers who are encouraging their partisans to not only turn on the winners but on democracy itself. And the loonies are listening, seeking tacit permission to unleash their nihilism.
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