Denunciations of the harsh tone of political discourse are an old standby of American commentary. Though presidents of the United States have been subjected to absurd and often vicious attacks for more than 200 years, it has been generally understood that the derangement engendered by extreme partisanship is an unavoidable if regrettable feature of our political life. But if the Anti-Defamation League has its way, the election of Barack Obama will herald a changing of the rules. Opponents of this president are apparently going to have to tread a lot more lightly or face all the opprobrium that this group can muster.
Why is this so? As was the case with many of those who opposed his Republican predecessor, some of those speaking up against President Obama’s policies have engaged in uncivil discourse. While the far Left embraced conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war, the far Right wastes time pondering the president’s religious faith or where he was born. And some on the Right have tried to brand the object of their opposition as a new Hitler, just as some on the Left did to Bush.
Such appalling statements should be condemned. But just as it was wrong — as well as politically tone-deaf — for conservatives to have assumed that all opponents of the war in Iraq could be put down as merely the fellow travelers of the insane Left, where the Code Pink/Cindy Sheehan crowd dominated, it would be foolish for the Left to make the same mistake about the groundswell of opposition against Obama’s policies. Yet as misguided as such an approach may be for the Democratic party, it is quite another thing when an organization tasked with monitoring anti-Semitism and genuine threats to democracy steps into this mess. But that is exactly what the ADL has done with its new report, “Rage Grows in America: Anti-Government Conspiracies,” issued on Monday. The report claims that those who are disgruntled with the president have unleashed a “toxic atmosphere of rage in America” since Obama’s election.
Some of the ADL’s work here is unexceptionable. Informing the public about scary fringe groups like the armed “militias” mentioned in the report is the sort of task for which the ADL was founded. But “Rage Grows in America” isn’t content with smoking out the nuts. Its goal is to link them to the broad spectrum of activists, writers, and thinkers who are less than enthralled with the age of Obama. For the ADL, the “rage” is the result of a three-headed monster: “mainstream political attacks,” “grass roots hostility,” and “anti-government extremists."
The first of these threats to American democracy — the word “mainstream” appears in the report in quotes as if to disparage the notion that such opinions are widespread, while simultaneously paying lip service to the fact that strong criticism of Obama is entirely legitimate — is the result of “partisan attacks against the Obama administration by some conservative politicians and media figures. Upset and anxious about their loss of power following the 2008 elections, they seek primarily to energize their political base and to delegitimize the Obama administration at the same time.
This passage ought to prompt disinterested readers to ask whether a defeated political party’s criticism of their opposition deserves mention in a report about extremism. After all, conservatives have attacked Obama on the issues not because they want to overthrow the government but because they disagree with him. The ADL then attempts to cover itself by saying that, “for the most part,” such mainstream critics “eschew the conspiracy theories and more outlandish notions and tactics propagated by others. Some of their activities parallel Democratic tactics during the Bush administration. These mainstream political attacks fall outside of the bounds of this report."
The mere mention of such Republican activities in this context, however, serves to reinforce the very conclusion that the ADL claims it wishes to disavow. Indeed, the report then goes on to say: “One of the most important effects of these activists, however, is to help create a body of people who may be predisposed to believe the assertions and claims of more extreme individuals and groups."
So, according to the ADL, one of the “most important” motives for criticism of the stimulus package, ObamaCare, appeasement of Iran, dithering over Afghanistan, and perhaps even the president’s confrontational attitude toward Israel is to lay the groundwork for extremist conspiracy theories!
In one tidy package, the ADL links not only “mainstream” critics but also radio and television talkers like Glenn Beck and peaceful “tea party” protests against higher taxes with those who talk of armed resistance to the government and even those responsible for the 1994 Oklahoma City bombing. Seen in this light, those who merely cry that they “want their country back” from the Democrats while standing outside a town-hall meeting become the thin edge of the wedge of a new threat to democracy and, by extension, a threat to the Jews.
The point is that the “tea parties” and protests at town halls are no more a threat to democracy than were the anti-Iraq-war protests of just a few years ago, where one was just as likely, if not more likely, to encounter not veiled anti-Semitism of the kind the report imuted to right-wing activists, but rather open vicious Jew hatred and Israel-bashing, as well as portrayals of Bush and Dick Cheney as Nazis.
More important, what the ADL seems to forget is that the right of the people to feel “anger and resentment” against the government of the day — be it Republican or Democratic — is what we call democracy in this country. The group is standing on firm ground when it calls on Republicans, as it recently did, to condemn those who outrageously link Obama with Hitler. Of course, Republican leaders have done exactly that. But had the ADL issued a report a few years ago that began by accusing Democrats of creating resentment against Bush and then linked opposition to the GOP to extremists who supported Hamas or rationalized or even denied al-Qaeda’s role in 9/11, Democrats would have cried foul and been right to do so. That never happened. But by choosing to frame its report denouncing this brand of extremism in such a way as to associate all those who have opposed Obama’s policies in one way or another with the far Right, the ADL has stepped over a line that a nonpartisan group should never cross.