In addressing the University of Michigan graduating class, President Barack Obama pleaded for increased "civility" in American politics and in the media, faulting extremes of the Left and the Right for the ugly acrimony that is sapping the nation's ability to address serious problems.
The address did defend the role that government must play in creating conditions for a successful nation, but Obama noted that "to keep our democracy healthy," there must be "a basic level of civility in our public debate." He went on to criticize both those on the Right who throw around accusations of "socialist" and those on the Left who use words like "right-wing nut."
In Obama's framing of the incivility problem, both sides were treated as roughly equal offenders, despite the reality that the Right (and the Republicans) have been far guiltier of using the politics of dirty tricks and personal destruction dating back decades than have the Left (and the Democrats).
Indeed, one could argue that the aggressive style of GOP politics has come to define the Republican Party, from the days of Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon through the era of Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. The Republicans truly treat politics as a "war of ideas," with the emphasis on "war."
When out of power in recent years, the Republicans haven't even pretended to cooperate with Democrats; instead, the GOP and its media allies have set out to make Washington ungovernable. The incivility is not just some naturally occurring phenomenon; it is a conscious strategy for regaining power.
The Republicans know that the American people will quickly grow weary of all the political bickering that surrounds Democratic control and thus will return power to the Republicans, who further recognize that the defeated Democrats will then bend over backwards to work with Republicans on achieving some normal level of governance.
So, there is a rational calculation for cranking up the volume of the Right's noise machine to popularize ugly smears against leading Democrats, such as the baseless accusations about Obama being born in Kenya and his supposedly secret Muslim allegiances. This is disinformation in the style of what CIA covert operators spread against targeted leaders of enemy regimes.
Given the Right's massive investment in media stretching from newspapers, magazines and books to radio, TV and the Internet the disinformation soon takes on the ring of truth. Millions of Americans come to believe the lies and then help spread them further.
The Left has no comparable media apparatus of its own. So, while it's true that some on the Left tried to give the Right a taste of its own medicine by circulating unsupported charges that George W. Bush masterminded the 9/11 attacks, there was no comparison in how broad-based the competing smears from the Right and Left have been.
On the Right, key media figures and elected Republicans have warmly embraced anti-Obama conspiracy theories much as they did the smears against Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Recently, in the Arizona House of Representatives, 31 of 35 GOP members voted for a bill that would require Obama to present his birth certificate before he would be allowed on the state ballot in 2012.
Then, when Obama criticized another Arizona law, which empowers police to demand proof of citizenship from suspected illegal immigrants if there's "reasonable suspicion," Republican media hero Rush Limbaugh cracked that Obama was worried because he might not be an American himself.
"I can understand Obama being touchy on the subject of producing your papers," Limbaugh said. "Maybe he's afraid somebody's going to ask him for his."
This pandering to the "birthers" also has become regular fare at Tea Party events. At a recent Tea Party rally in South Carolina, former Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colorado, asked, "why don't we just send him back" to Kenya?
Yet, in his commencement speech on Saturday, Obama laid the blame for the political incivility on both extremes about equally, much as news outlets like CNN pretend that Democrats are as much at fault for the lack of bipartisanship as the Republicans.
Creating these false equivalencies, however, holds little promise of causing the Right and the Republicans give up on their winning strategy of making the political process scream, until the American people grow tired of the ugliness and put the Republicans back in charge.
The only way the Right and the Republicans will back off their approach is if it fails over an extended period of time, if it's rejected by the American voters. And the only way to make it fail would be for Democrats to come up with a political/media counter-strategy to defeat it.
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