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The age of invective

Nasty, illiberal rhetoric threatens liberal democracy

October 21, 2019

3:50 AM

21 October 2019

3:50 AM

A healthy democracy requires free speech and free assembly, tolerance for different views, and peaceful transfers of power among contending parties. It requires honest elections, where losers do more than concede. They acknowledge the legitimacy of the outcome, as Al Gore did in a highly-contested 2000 president contest. These fundamental pillars of liberal self-government are now being challenged across Europe and the United States. It is crucial to recognize the challenge, call out the worst violations, and push back.

Vitriolic, white-hot rhetoric now paints political opponents not as loyal opponents but as traitors, determined to overthrow not only specific leaders but the democratic system itself. It paints elections and their winners as illegitimate. Democrat Stacey Abrams, who lost the 2018 governor’s race in Georgia, does so explicitly and has been supported, not rebuked, by her party’s national leaders. Worse, national Democrats have implicitly rejected Donald Trump’s legitimacy as the duly-elected president. They began the day after the election, and they haven’t let up. The national media are their active allies. Democracy dies in such derangement.

President Trump’s own rhetoric is equally damaging. For years, he implied Barack Obama was not a legitimate president because he was allegedly born in Kenya. No evidence to the contrary was enough for him. These false claims fed our country’s worst instincts, and Trump only abandoned them when he ran for office himself.

Since Trump’s victory in 2016, he has frequently claimed – with no evidence at all – that he actually won the popular vote. He was deprived of that honest result, he says, only because millions of illegal ballots were cast. Not thousands. Millions. At recent political rallies, he compounded the damage by charging his political opponents ‘hate’ the United States (his words). They don’t.

The proliferation of these accusations is a troubling sign of political decay. It’s time to recognize the cumulative damage this noxious rhetoric is doing to our country. It’s time to shout ‘no’ and make that shout heard over the vitriol.

The latest invective came from Hillary Clinton, who called two other American politicians ‘Russian assets’. Without supporting evidence – she presented none – it’s an execrable charge. It echoes her constant refrain that she lost to Trump only because the Kremlin opposed her. Now, in excuse number 6,327, she damns the Green party candidate, Jill Stein, for siphoning away her votes. Last week, Hillary said flatly that Stein was a Russian asset and added that the Kremlin was now ‘grooming’ a Democrat to run as a third-party spoiler in 2020. Hillary didn’t mention any name, but it was obvious she meant Tulsi Gabbard.

Gabbard is an elected member of the US House from Hawaii, running (near the bottom of the field) for president. She has served honorably in the US military and is still in the National Guard. Now, Clinton is effectively charging her with treason. Did Hillary present any evidence? Nope. Did she present any evidence against Stein? Nope. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, ‘Facts fly out the door when accusations come innuendo.’

Hillary flung her slime casually, recklessly, much as Joe McCarthy did in the early 1950s. Since her allegations came in a podcast, you might expect the interviewer to demand some proof. Nope. The interviewer was David Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008. He should know better.

Serious charges like Hillary’s demand serious evidence. If you think somebody did something seriously wrong, show us some proof. Give the other side a fair chance to grill the evidence and the accuser and present its own side.

One way to push back against this frenzy is with ridicule. That’s why the Babylon Bee’s parody of Hillary Clinton is so devastating:

‘According to sources at a DC-area Costco, failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was asked to leave Costco again after repeatedly accusing a lady handing out food samples of being a Russian asset.

‘The sample lady had apparently offered the failed presidential candidate a small paper cup of orange juice…

‘”Orange… orange like Trump!” Clinton screamed suddenly, frightening the poor food demonstration worker. “You’re in league with him, aren’t you!?”‘

There’s no response to mockery like that.

We’ll need a lot more of it from the Babylon Bee and The Onion this year. We may need industrial-strength Prozac in the drinking water, too, to make it through the impeachment, reports on FBI abuses, and a bitter election fight.

We desperately need more decency in public life and more accountability from both elected officials and bureaucrats. We desperately need more even-handed reporting that clearly separates hard news from opinion. Americans yearn for it. Our democracy requires it. It is a mark of our growing cynicism that we no longer expect it.


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