It is in the professional interest of any political commentator to have as large and engaged an audience as possible. It is thus an assertion against interest for me to suggest that everyone needs a break from the manic pace of what we euphemistically refer to as “the national dialogue” now and then. Politics isn’t necessarily healthy. Overexposure to it can be poisonous.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise took a bullet for politics last week. It was his presence and the Capitol Hill police who accompanied him that likely prevented the heinous attack on Republicans specifically from becoming a massacre. Such an attack might have catalyzed a social breakdown of a scale unseen in decades. At least, that seems to be the consensus among the politically astute. Those who pay attention to the headlines and are steeped in political debates, the civic-minded and well-educated; they seem the least sanguine about the state of American affairs. For these political observers, the nation is poised on the brink. But are we?
Some on the right have sought to prevent their like-minded colleagues from casting blame for this shooting onto anyone or anything other than the perpetrator, which is laudable. Their caution stands in stark contrast to the fevered effort by liberal commentators to transform the deranged gunman who attacked civilians and Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in 2011 into a radicalized conservative (a moment of opportunistic delirium shamefully reprised by the New York Times editorial board last week). While it’s both prudent and correct to lay the blame for this attack on the shoulders of the perpetrator alone, it serves no one to pretend James Hodgkinson was not immersed in toxic politics only for the sake of maintaining a false consistency. He was.
The shooter bathed in liberal opinion and infotainment. His Facebook page was populated with liberal affiliations and apocalyptic comments about the state of the republic in the era of Donald Trump. Groups to which he belonged celebrated their late member’s attack as the opening salvos of a deserved reckoning for Republicans. This is sick but not unfamiliar behavior; at least, not to anyone who regularly consumes politics as entertainment. Those with a social media presence recognize this kind of talk as a response to perverse incentive structures. Discretion is not rewarded. The food pellet drops down only for those most willing to self-immolate over the latest offense to democracy.
It is one thing to become a fan of politics but quite another to become a fanatic, particularly when the devotee has a rooting interest in one side over another. Politics is, after all, dramatic. It is the story of human interaction, conflict, and the reconciliation of competing interests. Politics became a form of entertainment because it is entertaining. For millions of Americans, politics is part of their daily experience. For exponentially more Americans, it’s not.
If you’re reading this, the chances are that you count yourself a member of the former tribe. And because the shooter was a member himself, albeit grotesque and distorted funhouse mirror image of one, its affiliates have seen his atrocity as a reflection on society and themselves perhaps more so than his actions warrant.
For example, the often shrewd and circumspect Erick Erickson judged America in light of this attack as beyond saving. “Evil” is “dominant,” the American left is the Western equivalent of “ISIS,” and the only way “calm the situation” is for America to bifurcate into red and blue versions of India and Pakistan. For the bitter nihilists who made up Trump’s intellectuals, America has been in the midst of a “cold civil war” for years. These were for them the opening salvos of the next stage of a new internecine struggle.
Those on the liberal left who have spent the better part of two years acclimating their political brethren to violence as a legitimate response to speech, and who encountered no censure from the gatekeepers of responsible liberal commentary, went off the deep end. The usual suspects exhausted their energies blaming a firearm for the attack on Congress rather than the attacker. New York Daily News columnist Shaun King blamed white people. Ousted CBS News anchor Scott Pelley blamed “political hate speech.” Huffington Post contributor Jesse Benn criticized the shooting as a “counterproductive/ineffective” contribution to the noble project of “violent resistance” to the Trump-led GOP.
It is true that politics no longer becomes a civic exercise and is instead a way of life, policy debates become personalized. Rational and dispassionate debate grows scarcer as partisan affiliation becomes bound up in personal identity. Americans who are only tangentially tuned into the political process do not, however, ascribe literal life-or-death importance to fleeting cultural controversies or obscure policy debates in Washington. By contrast, it’s increasingly common to hear that kind of hyperbole from the activist class on both sides of the partisan divide.
Is America closer to the precipice than it was in, say, 1859, 1880, 1932, or 1968? Perhaps, but that is a judgment that can only be made in retrospect. There are a number of factors that speak against it. Despite high-profile acts of sectarian fanaticism, this is a period of increasing religious acceptance. Tolerance of racial minorities and homosexuals is also on the rise. Americans of a partisan affiliation are increasingly at odds, but partisan affiliation—to say nothing of regular political engagement—is a weak force for most Americans. Further, cross-partisan relationships, while less common than they used to be, are hardly alien.
It is tempting for those of us who are absorbed in the daily political debate to despair over the demoralizing state of political discourse. Some might even see in the horrors meted out by the attacker in Arlington a terrifyingly familiar sort of mania. Perhaps, though they knew it to be shameful behavior, they’ve even allowed themselves to indulge the worst stereotypes of and consuming antipathy for their political adversaries. In that sense, Hodgkinson is a reflection on us, just not all of us. He was a reflection of we might become if we succumb to the temptations of the politicized life. His actions don’t have to be a portent of a terrible future but a warning. When we look back, Americans may see in 2017 not a precipice, but a crisis averted.