The Tucson, Arizona rampage left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded, six citizens dead and millions of Americans jumping to the right conclusions for the wrong reasons. Yes, American politics should be more civil. But no, one crazy gunman’s random fixations and horrific violence should not trigger the kind of reform modern political culture needs.
I confess, having written a book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, calling for centrism and civility, I am tempted to flow with the conventional wisdom this time. Right after this mass shooting outside a supermarket at one of Giffords' “Congress on Your Corner” meet-and- greets, preaching pundits began blaming the vitriol, particularly from the Right. The fact that Sarah Palin’s website featured Giffords and other politicians targeted for political defeat in 2010 with crosshairs on their faces supposedly symbolized everything wrong with politics today.
Human beings love stories, we crave causality. We rubberneck at traffic accidents trying to divine the triggering chain of events, hoping to avoid that fate ourselves. After president John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, its seeming randomness magnified the national trauma. Back then, many Texans vilified Kennedy, but no evidence linked those critics with his murder.
Politics is a domesticated form of verbal, ideological and personal warfare, frequently explained with fighting words. The word “campaign” originated in the 1600s from the French word for the open fields where soldiers fought their long battles, campagne.
Campaign became part of the barrage of military terms describing electioneering.
In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt “rallied” his Democratic “troops,” saying, “I am an old campaigner, and I love a good fight.”
In 2008, America’s modern Gandhi, Barack Obama, telegraphed toughness by threatening his Republican rivals: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”
“Targeting” opponents and even drawing crosshairs on rivals is not the problem. As candidates, both Roosevelt and Obama also spoke creatively and constructively. Political civility comes from tempering toughness with openness, seeking consensus, acknowledging complexity, varying tone and periodically agreeing to disagree agreeably.
Politics sours when the tone is constantly shrill, when enemies are demonized, positions polarized.
There is too much shouting in American politics today, from Left and
Right, against George W. Bush and Obama, on MSNBC and Fox, by reporters
seeking sensation and by bloggers stirring the pot. Politics becomes
scary when dozens of complex crosscutting issues are reduced to one
with-me-or-againstme worldview. As a Democrat who supports gun control,
Giffords refuses to be doctrinaire. New York’s former mayor Ed Koch once
said: “If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me. If
you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist.”
ISRAELIS SHOULD reflect on the harshness of their political culture
which makes American politics look like a tea party – in the
old-fashioned, gentlemanly sense, of course. Most Americans understand
when to holster partisan anger – even righteous indignation.
Screaming mourners do not disrupt official American ceremonies, as was
done in the Carmel last week. And Americans excel at mounting the
patriotic tableaux we witnessed on 9/11 when Democrats and Republicans
spontaneously sang “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps, on election
night 2008 when John McCain and Obama spoke so graciously of each other
and this Monday when the nation stopped for a moment of silence.
In Israel, leftists and rightists are capable of demagoguery,
demonization and incitement to violence, yet each camp only sees the
other’s guilt. And while America’s most extreme voices usually fester on
the margins, tempered by the civility of the McCains and Obamas, too
many shrill voices emanate from the Knesset. Israeli politicians seem to
scream “die traitor” as often as Arizonans say “howdy pardner.”
Shas rabbis and other haredim should admit that not all internal critics
are heretics. Rightists should acknowledge that not all leftists are
unpatriotic. Leftists should concede that not every criticism of them is
No one needs a rampaging maniac to deliver a wake-up call. We can see it
night after night on the news; we must judge it and change it day by
day by ourselves.
Israelis, too, know how to rally together, when necessary. Harvard Prof.
Ruth Wiesse calls Israelis “reverse hypocrites,” whose deeds are
frequently more patriotic than their words. And anyone who has stood at
attention when the mourning siren sounds on Remembrance Day knows that
Israelis too understand that national loyalties transcend partisanship.
“Democracy begins in conversation,” the great American educator John
Dewey taught. The conversation should be passionate but tempered with a
touch of humility, an acknowledgment of complexity and an appreciation
for the enduring values, common history and shared fate that bind fellow
POLITICAL PARTIES work when they help individuals solve problems
together; coalition building works best when people have a range of
conflicting loyalties, when people might pray together in the morning
yet attend competing political meetings that night. Political parties
become destructive when they demonize and polarize, becoming one of a
series of reinforcing elements fragmenting the country.
Recently, in Tucson, Arizona, a sweet nine-year-old girl named Christina
Taylor Green was elected to her student council. Born on September 11,
2001, Christina was always a particularly welcome symbol of hope to her
friends and family. Last Saturday, a neighbor invited Christina to meet
Giffords and “see how democracy works.”
Christina ended up murdered, shot in the chest.
Americans and Israelis should cultivate a politics of civility, not
because of the insane murderer but because we all want to show “how
democracy works,” in Christina’s memory, to honor Giffords’ lifework and
for our common good.The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
He is the author of
Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.