TCS Daily

The Politics of Evil

By Dale Franks - November 8, 2002 12:00 AM

American politics has always been bitterly partisan. There is a tendency to think that some bygone day was more civil, and more issue-oriented. But, as far back as one cares to go, the "politics of personal destruction" has been the norm, rather than the exception.

Indeed, in the Federal Era of the late 18th and early 19th century, politicians made personal attacks on each other that sound extraordinarily vicious even to our jaded, modern ears. In the presidential election of 1800, the Connecticut Courant warned that if Thomas Jefferson were elected, "there is scarcely a possibility that we shall escape a Civil War. Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced."

That's pretty strong stuff, even for today. Yet, Americans have always been serious - sometimes, deadly serious-about politics. Perhaps this is because politics in America is not about a remote institution that affects a few lofty grandees in a faraway capitol. Instead, it is about issues that in one way or another directly the affect the way we will live, how much money we will have to raise our families, and how much freedom we will have from government intrusion into our lives.

There is, however, one important and frightening way in which political debate is different today. There is, especially on the political left, a moralization of the political debate that is fundamentally different than anything we've seen since the great moral debate over slavery in the pre-Civil War era. Such moralization was perfectly understandable at that time. Human beings were, after all, being held in bondage. In the free and prosperous society of today, however, such moralization seems rather out of place.

Yet, the contemporary left's moralization of politics has not been confined to a single, overarching issue, such as slavery in the pre-Civil War era. Instead, it has been extended so that nearly every policy debate imaginable has become deeply infused with a moral component. The left does not simply believe that the right is wrong on the issues, or that its policy prescriptions are misguided. The left holds as a matter of course that its opponents are morally deficient, simply because they disagree. Conservatives, as Charles Krauthammer recently phrased it, are evil in the eyes of the left.

In the 1994 election campaign, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) gave us the perfect example of this belief. Only racists, he said, could be in favor of lower taxes or the death penalty. Rangel opined that people used to call it "Jim Crow", but now they call it "tax cuts."

In other words, all those arcane, technical arguments about economic growth or increases in personal consumption and savings are really nothing other than window dressing. Arguments about proportional justice, deterrence, and punishing the guilty are nothing more than an attempt to find a legal justification for lynchings.

Statements such as Rep. Rangel's serve some important purposes for the left. First, they free the left from having to make any substantive response to technical, empirical, or factual arguments. After all, such arguments are merely a posteriori justifications to an immoral policy, so there is no reason to address them. Second, they restrict the debate by intimidating the left's opponents. They serve notice to the electorate that the opponents of the left have transgressed the limits of acceptable thought.

When the left brings into question the personal moral legitimacy of its opponents, the opponents' arguments are automatically marginalized. This allows the left to raise doubts in the minds of electorate about the legitimacy of opposing arguments, while at the same time eliminating the necessity of having to deal with those arguments on an empirical basis. This denies the voter the chance to hear and weigh the arguments of both sides, and prevents him from making an informed decision.

At the same time, such tactics can powerfully engage the voter on an emotional level, because, in most people, the urge to do the right thing and to remain within the bounds of decency is a powerful motivator. This urge allows the left to artificially constrain the limits of acceptable dissent by painting its opponents as radicals who are "outside the mainstream" of acceptable thought. Senate Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT) has successfully used this tactic time and time again when rejecting President Bush's judicial appointments.

This attitude has noticeable - and negative - effects on the electoral process as well.

If one's opponents are morally deficient, then their defeat is not a simple matter of politics but an affirmative moral duty. Hence, nearly any tactic, no matter how Machiavellian, is acceptable if it ensures the defeat of the left's opponents.

The 2000 presidential election was a textbook study of this attitude. Democrats pursued selective recounts in highly Democratic counties in a vote-mining effort. Vote counting rules were changed in the middle of the process to allow Democratic vote counters to determine the "intent of the voter" when counting ballots. DNC lawyers sued in Florida's courts to invalidate absentee ballots that were assumed to be preponderantly Republican.

This same type of Al Davis, "Just win, baby!" attitude was evident in the recent Paul Wellstone memorial service/political rally. If reports are to be believed, the partisan political tone of the rally was deliberately planned by the DNC, at the personal behest of DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe. At the same time that Republicans were admonished to refrain from partisan politics until after the memorial service, the DNC was planning to turn the service itself into a rally for the party faithful. As a result, they received free television coverage of what was essentially a partisan political rally, and did it in such a way as to ensure that their Republican opponents would find it difficult to get equal time for a rally of their own.

Both examples demonstrate the logical outcome of the left's assumption of moral superiority: a single-minded will to power, coupled with the concomitant willingness to use any tactic available to obtain it.

The essence of totalitarianism is the artificial constraint of acceptable thought to the limits prescribed by a particular ideology. If left unchecked, the moralization of politics will destroy the American form of popular government by limiting political debate to marginal differences between political elites who subscribe to what Thomas Sowell has called "the Vision of the Anointed." Real choice and real policy differences will all fall outside the limits of acceptable thought.

Such a government will provide all of the trappings of popular government, without any of the substance.



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