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Calling the Tea Party “terrorists”

As the debt ceiling negotations were heading down to the wire, the liberal criticisms of the Tea Party representatives in Congress got more heated. By the end, there was little holding back.

Democrat representative Mike Doyle, in a meeting attended by Vice-President Joe Biden, referred to the Republicans as "terrorists" (Biden denied reports that he himself used the term). Among the liberal commentariat, there was a similar sentiment. Earlier, Tom Friedman had called the Tea Party the "Hezbollah faction" of the GOP. After the deal was struck, fellow New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote:

These last few months, much of the country has watched in horror as the Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people.... Their goal, they believed, was worth blowing up the country for, if that’s what it took....For now, the Tea Party Republicans can put aside their suicide vests. But rest assured: They’ll have them on again soon enough.

Terrorist allusions were not the only derogatory ones thrown at the Tea Partiers. Democrat Representative Luiz Gutierrez said the Republicans were "arsonists" that "must be stopped". And New York Times op-ed writer Maureen Dowd depicted the Tea Party types as monsters in a horror movie:

They were like cannibals, eating their own party and leaders alive. They were like vampires, draining the country’s reputation, credit rating and compassion. They were like zombies, relentlessly and mindlessly coming back again and again to assault their unnerved victims, Boehner and President Obama. They were like the metallic beasts in “Alien” flashing mouths of teeth inside other mouths of teeth, bursting out of Boehner’s stomach every time he came to a bouquet of microphones.

Obviously Dowd's lurid descriptions say more about her and her fellow liberals' fears than a level-headed assessment.

Hearing this outpouring of denunciations of so-called Tea Party extremism coming from liberals, I can't help but immediately think: what cheek. Aren't these liberals the sample people who shout "racist" when someone refers to certain Muslims as jihadists or terrorists (even when referring to those who are indeed jihadists or terrorists)? Aren't they the same people who are constantly blaming conservatives for coarsening political discourse, who criticize the lack of civility in discourse and see it coming from only one direction? Indeed, a number of commentators have pointed out this hypocrisy - for instance, see the articles by David Harsiyani (here), Charles Lane (here) and Jonah Goldberg (here).

But, as it happens, I think it is fair enough for liberals to use such terminology. That is, I think they have the right to do so, and they should not be censored, either formally or informally: their "terrorist" jibes should not be considered beyond the pale. We all know that their use of such terms are hyperbole in order to make a point - Joe Nocera is not saying that Tea Partiers literally don suicide vests. I just wish that liberals wouldn't get on their moral high horses about civility in political discourse. They certainly did so in a big way following Jared Loughner's shooting rampage in Arizona earlier this year (on this, see my article "Falsely accusing the Tea Party of murder" here , and my blog post "Observations on Obama's speech at the Tucson memorial service" here). Politicians, journalists and others in the political arena should feel free to use whatever language they like - and they will be judged on it, in terms of both content and style, in the great battle of ideas.

But that response is not the kind of response that we're hearing from American conservatives. Instead, they are taking the "terrorist" word quite seriously and appear deeply offended. For a start, they are deliberately making a big deal about Biden's supposed use the term, even though the vice-president denies it, just so they can somehow link it to the White House. Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, a 2012 Republican candidate for president and self-professed Tea Party supporter, wants an apology. Sarah Palin thinks Biden directed the term at her even though she's not a member of congress, and has called it "quite vile". (Palin herself has played fast and loose with sticking on the "terrorist" label, like when she said Obama was "palling around" with terrorists - namely William Ayers, the former member of the sixties Weathermen.) 

These responses show that there is no substantive difference between the right and left today when it comes to free speech. Both sides are highly sensitive to words, and think certain words are beyond the pale and should not be allowed. Both express deep aggrievement, and put forward their claims to moral authority on the grounds that they are victims of inappropriate words. For the right, this was most clearly highlighted in their campaign to shut down the so-called "Ground Zero mosque": their complaints were all phrased in terms a lefty PC zealot would recognize, such as  "insensitive", "hurtful", etc. Today Republicans want sympathy when liberals use overblown rhetoric about "terror" tactics.

The problem is that today's Republican criticisms of the Democrats for referring to the Tea Party as "terrorists" will only reinforce our "you can't say that" culture. We end up debating what words can or cannot be used, and what constitutes civil or uncivil discourse. Democrats have their list of words, and Republicans theirs. This trend is undermining our ability to discuss freely. It's terrible for open debate, and it's just not politics.

Now, while I will defend the Democrats' right to make references to Tea Party "terrorists", I do think that their use of the term is problematic. My criticisms are about the political implications, however, rather than saying such references lower the tone and shouldn't be acceptable in polite company.

For one thing, calling the Tea Party "terrorists" for their opposition to a debt ceiling deal is really a continuation of a liberal campaign to dismiss the Tea Party as crazy. The hard line taken to the debt ceiling issue is their madness in action. Rather than attempting to answer the political points raised by the Tea Party, liberals just say that they are kooks that don't deserve to be taken seriously. This backfires on liberals, as it make them look like they are dodging the argument. 

In a different era, the Tea Party faction's intransigent line might be interpeted as taking a principled stand. But in ours, it is seen as a sign of insanity. I don't share the Tea Party's politics, but I do expect politicians to develop principles and take stands. Yet, according to Obama, only "compromise" is a mark of reasonableness. In doing so, the President is effectively saying that anyone with strong views is unacceptable, not just the Tea Partiers.     

Another problem with the Democrats' references to Tea Party "terrorists" is that it implies that the group is a grave  extremist threat, which in turn would  justify undemocratic measures to deal with. Indeed, it's striking how liberals' disappointment with the debt ceiling deal had they daydreaming about overriding congress. Former President Bill Clinton and commentator Paul Krugman, among others, say that Obama should have unilaterally raised the debt ceiling (relying on an interpretation of the 14th amendment to the constitution). Krugman believes the extremism of the Tea Party provides a rationale for such a move:

The Obama administration could have resorted to legal maneuvering to sidestep the debt ceiling, using any of several options. In ordinary circumstances, this might have been an extreme step. But faced with the reality of what is happening, namely raw extortion on the part of a party that, after all, only controls one house of Congress, it would have been totally justifiable.

It's quite revealing that a number of liberals are saying that it is acceptable to suspend the political process just because they can't get their own way. If labelling the Tea Party "terrorists" is being used to justify anti-democratic action, then it is another reason to oppose that description.

To sum up: I agree with the Democrats have the right to call Republicans "terrorists" - they should neither be formally censored by the state nor informally hounded into keeping quiet. Political discourse should be as robust and unrestricted as possible. But, at the same time, the fact that liberals feel the need to resort to such terms shows they don't have a true political response to the Tea Party, all they have is name-calling.

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