Much has been made of the abuse showered on members of Congress at a recent tea-party demonstration on Capitol Hill. Georgia Congressman John Lewis was greeted with racial slurs. Emanuel Cleaver, a black congressman from Missouri, was spat on. Congressman Barney Frank, who is openly gay, was tarred with homophobic epithets. Later, Democrats in various cities had their offices vandalized. And Congressman Alan Grayson of Florida said one of his 5-year-old twins picked up the phone and heard a voice threatening to kill him if he voted for the bill. The startled child, Grayson told me, initially thought the threat was aimed at him.
Frightening a child in such a way is inexcusable. But presumably the caller thought she had reached the congressman himself. And, frankly, I'm not that worried about Grayson. Congressmen can pretty much fend for themselves. Lewis spent his formative years being beaten and tear-gassed by armed, foulmouthed racists on the Southern battlefield for civil rights. And let's face it: taking verbal abuse is part of a politician's job description.
The more serious danger from this corrosive conduct—and the failure to acknowledge it for what it is—is to our fraying national sense of purpose. It's a symptom of "what happens when [the citizens of] a country can't talk to one another constructively," said Cleaver's spokesperson.
When I asked Frank whether the rhetoric was worse than during the Clinton era, he said it was. To find its equivalent, said Frank, "I think you have to go back to the '60s, early '70s." The crazy talk then, he noted, was from the radical left, the likes of SDS. But at least in that era, respectable liberals denounced the radical fringe. Now the Republican establishment quietly acquiesces. And the right-wing media egg it on. "Instead of damning with faint praise, it is praising with faint damns," said Frank.
And precisely because it is so faintly damned by on-air pundits and other prominent figures, much of this poisonous talk is absorbed, undiluted, into the body politic. An analysis by Media Matters for America, a liberal media-watchdog group, blames the irresponsible and harshly partisan language for much of the misinformation accepted by a shockingly high percentage of the public. A majority of Republicans, reported a new Harris poll, believe President Obama to be a Muslim and a socialist—notions that, as Media Matters points out, are widely propagated in right-wing outlets (even though they don't particularly seem to go together). A majority of Republicans, reports Harris, also believe that Obama "wants to turn over the sovereignty of the United States to a one-world government."
When patriots are being taught that the president is a religiously suspect traitor ready to hand the country over to some sinister international cabal, it's hardly surprising they feel entitled to hurl hateful words at him or his presumed allies. More worrisome is how those ideas play out when they connect with people who are violent and unbalanced, such as the members of a right-wing, Christian militia arrested in Michigan last week. They were reportedly planning to assassinate police officers in their effort to halt the rise of the feared new world order—as foreseen by conspiracy theorists and prophets of the right such as Pat Robertson.
Chip Berlet, a senior analyst with Political Research Associates who studies such militia groups, believes the possibility of violence is heightened in times like these, when fear of joblessness is high, the nation's racial demographics are changing, and America and its values are widely perceived to be under attack. All you need to push some people over the edge is an enemy seen as irredeemably evil. For many on the right, Obama has become that enemy. And there is clearly no point, Berlet says, in "having a conversation about policy if your opponent is evil." So rational discourse is shut down, and working in a truly bipartisan way becomes a bad joke.
Humphrey Taylor, chairman of the Harris poll, points out that hatred of presidents is nothing new. "What I think is different this time is the large numbers of people whose beliefs about this president are pretty weird or false," he wrote me. Those beliefs nonetheless have a consequence. Obama, who came into office swearing to put partisanship aside, is forced to rely on pure partisanship to claim his most significant domestic achievement to date.
The midterm season promises no relief from hate-filled language. And why not, when it is so effective at stirring people up? Why not when, according to Harris, a quarter of Republicans think Obama may be the Antichrist and nearly half believe that he "resents America's heritage"? However effective such divisive notions may be when hurled around in the political arena, it's hard to see how, once they get imbibed and digested, we ever get back on the same side.
Ellis Cose is the author of Bone to Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Reparation, and Revenge and The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America.