Barack Obama was elected on November 4th 2008 and inaugurated on January 20th 2009, but his presidency really began on February 20th, 2009.
That was the day CNBC reporter Rick Santelli unleashed a tirade against the Obama administration’s housing bailout. The Santelli Rant helped give rise to the Tea Party protests and the town hall pushback against socialized medicine. And it was the first inkling of what has come to define the Obama presidency—outrage.
Outrage is nothing new in politics, but it has reached new heights in the age of Obama. Outrage is often built on justifiable and deeply felt frustration. When taken to the extreme, however, it debases our politics and leaves us all worse off.
The ad hominem attack has been both a cause and a consequence of much of the outrage during Obama’s presidency. Think of the most hateful and hurtful adjective you can—Fascist! Nazi! Racist! Terrorist! Un-American!—and you can be sure it’s been hurled at regular intervals by our elected leaders and political commentators at those with whom they disagreed.
The list of liberals who ascribed conservative opposition to Obama’s agenda to racism is a long one. From columnists Eleanor Clift and Maureen Dowd to former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and liberal icons like Fidel Castro, pushback to Obama’s ambitious agenda, was, as comedian Janeane Garofalo put it in reference to the Tea Party protestors (or “tea baggers” as liberals vulgarly called them), “about hating a black man in the White House. This is racism straight up.”
Though race proved the most common (and predictable) line of attack against conservatives, it was by no means the only one. New York Times columnist Frank Rich compared conservative commentators Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin to the mass murderer Joseph Stalin. Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson (FL) said Republicans who opposed the Democrats’ health care reform bill hope Americans “die quickly.”
Rep. Baron Hill (D-IN) called the town hall protestors “political terrorists,” while Jerry Nadler (D-NY) claimed they used “fascist tactic[s].” Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) told a newspaper that protestors were using “close to Brown Shirt tactics…I mean that very seriously.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the protests “un-American” and accused some protestors of carrying Nazi symbols.
To be fair, the outrage was deployed with equal frequency by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. For instance, a GOP candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates called the Obama administration “domestic terrorism at its worst” and said that if the GOP fell short at the ballot box, it might have to resort to the “bullet box.”
Technology is outrage’s greatest enabler. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other networking websites prize rapid response while discouraging thoughtful and restrained analysis. Grayson’s “die quickly” remark made it to YouTube, where it got millions of hits. A simple Facebook status update by Sarah Palin about death panels helped ignite popular backlash to the Democrats’ health care reform plans.
Outrage can be lucrative. With two words—“You lie!”—during the president’s August address to a joint session of Congress, Joe Wilson went from a largely unknown backbench Republican Congressman to one of the most widely known Republican lawmakers. He raised more than $1 million in the days following his two syllable outburst. Senator Jim DeMint later said he wished he had thought of “You lie!”
With another two words, President Obama missed a great opportunity to change the tone of the nation’s discussion on race. Obama’s only significant foray into the issue was squandered when he jumped to the conclusion that Cambridge police officers had “acted stupidly” in arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates for disorderly conduct. This even though the president admitted that he didn’t know the facts of the case.
Obama said he saw the incident as a “teachable moment” to discuss lingering racial tensions, but the only thing the American people learned was that their supposedly post-racial president seemed intent on stoking racial resentment.
Rep. Alan Grayson has been perhaps the most prolific purveyor of outrage, and it paid. He called a Federal Reserve Board staffer a “K Street whore,” and later called Republicans “foot dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.” The first insult got him $220,000 and his second $250,000. Grayson netted $114,000 in the first day after his “die quickly” remark, about one third of his fundraising for the third quarter of the year. Grayson told Salon “we’ve had thousands of new contributors to our campaign, we’ve received 6,000 emails in less than 24 hours.”
Outrage is often rooted in a tit-for-tat reasoning: They did it to us, so we must do it to them. Since 2000 and the Florida re-count, the Left has been in full-throated outrage over just about everything President George W. Bush and conservatives have done. The phenomenon even spawned a term, Bush Derangement Syndrome, coined by Charles Krauthammer and defined as “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency – nay – the very existence of George W. Bush.” Films fantasized about the assignation of Bush. The left labeled Bush everything from a terrorist and war criminal to a chimp.
Conservatives tired of being labeled racists merely for opposing Obama’s agenda or Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court played the race card back to Democrats. Newt Gingrich tweeted that Sonia Sotomayor is a “Latina woman racist.”
Glenn Beck called Obama a “racist” who harbors “a deep-seated hatred for white people or white culture.” That claim surely drew laughter from the many blacks who have openly questioned the president’s commitment to the black community and accused him of running away from black culture.
Then there was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s recently revealed 2008 remark that Obama could win the presidency because the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate like Obama, whom he referred to as being a “light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
Though crassly put, Reid’s analysis of the American electorate was one that many people across the political spectrum would agree with. But conservatives felt justified in attacking Reid, with many calling for him to step down as majority leader, because the same comment by a Republican undoubtedly would have been denounced as racist by the same Democrats who dismissed Reid’s remark.
But Reid had made a much more outrageous remark a few weeks earlier that drew much less attention. He compared congressional opposition to the Democrats’ health care reform effort to 19th Century opposition to the abolition of slavery. Now that’s outrageous!
Outrage can almost always be justified because there’s so much at stake. As Obama said during the SOTU, “when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy.” The Democrats’ plan to reform health care constitutes an attempt to overhaul at least one seventh of our economy. Every American will be affected by those changes, and in the most profound ways possible. It is literally a life and death issue.
For political interest groups, outrage is a great way to elicit donations and support. They feel the need to frame things in apocalyptic terms, as a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil. So they must suggest that the opposition’s policies and actions would lead to imminent threat of death and demise and the end of life as we know it. For the media, outrage is the best way to attract and retain viewers, listeners and readers.
There is usually at least a hint of truth at the root of even the most outrageous remarks. When Rush Limbaugh said he saw “similarities between the Democrat Party of today and the Nazi Party in Germany” it was easy to dismiss it as attention-seeking claptrap.
But when the public heard that section 1233 of the House healthcare bill stated that the government would reimburse doctors who give end of life counseling without the patient asking for it, Rush’s rhetoric suddenly didn’t sound so absurd.
Neither did Sarah Palin’s “death panel” claim. She wrote that Obama’s health care plan would mean “my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care.”
But extreme characterizations of the opposition often crowd out more precise and accurate arguments against its policies. The purveyors of outrage often claim that they are speaking bluntly or honestly -- just tellin’ it like it is. But the mischaracterizations can be self-defeating, as the over-the-top rhetoric prompts many Americans to stop paying attention altogether.
There are many legitimate arguments against the Democrats’ health care reform proposal without having to resort to hyperbole by invoking Hitler. Those references trivialize the evil Hitler did just as labeling opponents of the Democrats’ version of reform racists trivializes real racism.
Such insults are supposed to be conversation enders, but if we want to persuade others to embrace our views—or at least to listen to what we have to say—decency, accuracy, reflection and thoughtfulness should be the order of the day.
The way things are going, it won’t be long before the label “socialist” will be mundane. If the other side is comparing your guy to Hitler, portraying their guy as a socialist is no longer adequate. “Only a socialist?!,” one will ask, “That’s not so bad. It’s the Nazis that you have to worry about.”
The rhetorical arms race got so intense last summer that both sides of the healthcare debate were accusing the other of being covert Nazis.
And the public is left to wonder: Who are the fascists—the liberals who want to pull the plug on Grandma, or the conservative protestors who, as Congressman Baird suggested about the town hall protestors, are using “Brown Shirt tactics” to sabotage the Democratic process?
As liberal commentator David Gergen told Politico about the extreme rhetoric surrounding the health care debate, “It is a little bit like pornography. If people are going to start engaging in soft porn in order to get attention, you are going to have to go harder and harder, until eventually we all say we’d like something more virtuous.”
Perhaps we’re getting to that point. A January NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll found that just 35 percent of Americans have a positive view of the Democrats, while only 28 percent had a positive view of the Republicans. A recent Rasmussen poll found more Americans indentify as unaffiliated with any political party than identify as either Republicans or Democrats.
These realities suggest that the deep partisanship, mudslinging and political paranoia of the past year have taken a toll on the electorate. They also suggest that Barack Obama has succeeded in his campaign promise to unite the country. Only he’s united it in outrage against the political class.