Rod Dreher has posted several pieces on his blog lamenting the people who show up at townhalls wildly calling the Democrats Nazis. Jonah Goldberg wrote his column yesterday on the Democrats who have referred to upset citizens as “evilmongers” (Harry Reid) and “un-American” (Nancy Pelosi). Yet as foolish as the citizens are, Goldberg is right to place a higher degree of blame on those in government.
Clearly, personal attacks have been a part of politics to some extent as long as debate has existed. One way of viewing this is that the attacker is less civilized, and hasn’t quite shaken off the old instinct to attack the person who dares disagree with him (think of Preston Brooks physically assaulting Charles Sumner on the floor of the House in 1856). This hearkens back to old Europe, where distinction was won by physically defeating one’s opponent in combat, rather than defeating his ideas in political debate.
John Adams argued that part of the advance that America represented was a move away from this practice:
“Wherever men, women, or children, are to be found, whether they be old or young, rich or poor, high or low, wise or foolish, ignorant or learned, every individual is seen to be strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected by the people about him, and within his knowledge.”
An ambitious man, Adams believed that in a civilized republic, the citizens were on a ship together in the process of self-government. Therefore a man should earn distinction by earning the respect of his fellow citizens – by convincing his opponents, rather than destroying them.
The vice corresponding to this virtue was “ambition,” which led to tyranny. “Uncivilized” people in a republic seek to destroy rather than defeat their opponents, not by killing them as in old Europe, but by removing them entirely from political debate. In considering Adams’s belief, Arendt notes:
“It is precisely because the tyrant has no desire to excel and lacks all passion for distinction that he finds it so pleasant to rise above the company of all men; conversely, it is the desire to excel which makes men love the world and enjoy the company of their peers, and drives them into public business.”
Politically speaking, it is republican (small “r”) virtue that makes people desire to engage their opponents in real political discourse, and it is republican vice that is the politics of bureaucracy – in other words, of the centralized administrative politics favored by precisely the lawmakers presently being attacked in the “townhall” meetings.
When the victimized legislators express horror at the shouting matches they encounter, they would do well to remember whose policies robbed the citizens of the ability to practice republican virtue.