In today’s Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove claims to think that President Obama’s "dishonest and ad hominem attacks against his political opposition" are a response to his own declining poll numbers. "To listen to his rhetoric, there are no honest differences with Republicans; his opponents are not wrong but wicked, motivated by vicious desires to hurt their fellow Americans and the country. . . .In his attacks, Mr. Obama isn’t saying a global financial catastrophe, painful recession, and people losing health coverage are possible results of Republican policies. He’s saying these are the GOP’s goals." As someone who has himself been the victim of similar attacks in the past, Mr Rove must be guilty of at least a hint of disingenuousness in professing to regard this kind of nastiness as a new thing, the result of recent polling. I’d like to suggest a different explanation.
Just look at President Obama’s words at a memorial for victims of last week’s Navy Yard shootings. Talking about gun control, he told the bereaved and others present that "it may not happen tomorrow and it may not happen next week and it may not happen next month. But it will happen, because it’s the change we need." How, you may ask, does his need, or even his and those present whom he automatically presses into service on his side of the question, become a reason for something to happen? Well, it might show a touching faith in Providence, as our Puritan ancestors would have put it, but it seems to me a lot more likely to be yet another example of the temperamental historicism he has inherited — if he has inherited nothing else — from revolutionary Marxism.
At the risk of becoming a bore on this subject, I would just point out, as I have here and there in the past, the significance of this aspect of contemporary "progressivism" — whose very name, now favored by progressives themselves over "liberalism," implies a bumptious confidence in their own idea of history’s meaning and direction. Even if the connection with Marxist historicism be doubted, I think there can be far less doubt about the contribution the progressive kind makes to hard feelings and uncivil, un-democratic estrangement between the parties. Notice, for example, that in the President’s speech he makes no arguments. He does not bother with any examination of the question of the efficacy of gun control, any more than he stops to consider the appropriateness of using such an occasion to push his political agenda. On the contrary, he assumes his audience already agrees with him. If the implementation of the progressive program is an inevitability anyway, why should he bother to do anything else?
Similarly, Fred Hiatt in The Washington Post writes of how "it seems obvious that military-style weapons with no hunting or self-defense purpose should not be circulating. It seems obvious that people who hear voices and repeatedly fire guns in anger should be treated before they can buy more guns. Yet nine months after the school shooting that was supposed to shift these propositions from obvious to undeniable, not much has changed, and no one expects much to change." He doesn’t write that "it seems obvious to me," just that "it seems obvious" — as if he can’t imagine any reader for whom it would not be equally obvious. Though he is moderate and reasonable in his proposals, his tone reflects that of our combative President by purporting to regard the eventual enactment of gun-control laws as inevitable.
Though they may be as moderate and reasonable as Mr Hiatt themselves, those who have adopted this way of looking at the world must regard those with whom they disagree as not merely people like themselves but with a different point of view — the necessary assumption behind any representative form of government — but pointlessly obstructive enemies of the necessary and the good. They are what the progressives increasingly call "reactionaries." In doing so, they are adopting the language of the French Revolution (the first appearance of the word in English dates from 1799) that was later promiscuously used by Marxist revolutionaries to describe the class enemies who had to be eliminated. The revolutionary assumption is that reactionaries are by definition those who stand in the way of progress and therefore cannot be argued with but only removed, whether electorally or by the sort of bloody means that both sorts of revolutionaries ended up favoring.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that feelings are running so high among political opponents, but it is harder to understand why the media are now joining in so whole-heartedly. Which is the more cynical view: that anger and hatred sell more papers and get higher ratings than calm reason or that the media have no scruples left about becoming openly partisan? The latter proposition, at any rate, seems hardly deniable in the light of today’s Washington Post story about the "parade of journalists who’ve turned in their press badges for work in the Obama administration" — the latest of whom is Richard Stengel of Time. It’s also true that, having been treated as mere obstacles by their political adversaries, the Republicans are beginning to return the favor, regarding their Democratic opponents as enemies, impervious to reason, rather than people with a point of view that must be accommodated somehow if our democracy is to function properly. But then who cares about that anymore?