Many leftist journalists, bloggers, and talking heads are shamelessly exploiting last weekend’s tragedy in Tucson, Arizona. To them, there is a lesson to be learned in this senseless act of violence by an undeniably troubled man. The New York Times’ Paul Krugman says he was even “at some level, expecting something like this atrocity” to happen. Krugman concludes: “If Arizona promotes some real soul-searching, it could prove a turning point. If it doesn’t, Saturday’s atrocity will be just the beginning.”
This fear-inducing argument is a tired and worn-out Progressive prescription, one that rejects the reality of the American political tradition and the ultimate benefits of having a citizenry that embraces a strong spirit of self-government.
Despite all the calls for a more polite public discourse, history reveals precious few such models. Since the founding of the United States, the political scene has been anything but serene. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 1, anticipated the intensity of many public debates in America when he noted that:
We have already sufficient indications that it will happen in this as in all former cases of great national discussion. A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose. To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.
The presidential campaign of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams was one of the most divisive in American history, in which Jefferson was labeled a “Jacobin” and Adams called a “monarchist,” the 18th century equivalents of “anarchist” and “socialist.”
Let us also not forget that during the debate over the Jay Treaty in 1793, there was a discordant and explosive political environment between the pro-French and pro-British factions. Partisan strife was dividing the country, and tensions were high in the capital city of Philadelphia, where President George Washington was residing at the time. John Adams described the pro-French demonstrations vividly: “ten thousand people in the streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threatened to drag Washington out of his house and effect a revolution in the government, or compel it to declare war in favor of the French Revolution and against England.” Such actions were certainly not the epitome of civility, but they were not viewed as a failure of politics either.
The Founders’ understanding of human nature and the nature of politics allowed them to accept conflict and strong disagreements in the public square, and accommodate it through the structure of the American constitutional order. Throughout American history, the sentiments and passions of the people sometime lead to distasteful and vitriolic debates.
Modern Progressives may feel that it is messy to engage in vigorous debate and that public officials need not deign to engage with the feelings of ordinary Americans. Indeed, the original Progressives attempted to project the brilliance of their policy solutions on what they wished were the blank screen of American politics. But this is not the American way.
James Madison could have been speaking to Krugman and other Progressives when he offered this timeless advice about the essential nature of American politics in Federalist 46:
The adversaries of the Constitution seem to have lost sight of the people altogether in their reasonings on this subject… These gentlemen must here be reminded of their error. They must be told that the ultimate authority, wherever the derivative may be found, resides in the people alone… Truth, no less than decency, requires that the event in every case should be supposed to depend on the sentiments and sanction of their common constituents.
The tragedy in Tucson is a crime against us all. But crime is crime; and debate is debate. The blurring of this distinction and the wish to attenuate public debate in favor of one political perspective is a truly toxic addition to American politics, and makes for irresponsible journalism.