As a columnist who regularly dishes out sharp criticism, I try not to question the motives of people with whom I don't agree. Today, I'm going to step over that line.
The recent attacks by Republican leaders and their ideological fellow-travelers on the effort to reform the health-care system have been so misleading, so disingenuous, that they could only spring from a cynical effort to gain partisan political advantage. By poisoning the political well, they've given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They've become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems.
These are ugly words. Pearlstein is right to decry the misinformation that has been directed at the President's health care plan, but the GOP's efforts to defeat the plan are in no way disloyal or equivalent to terrorism. Party competition -- which often produces various forms of ugly behavior -- is an intrinsic feature of democratic politics in a free society. Opposition parties are in no way obligated to help the country reach a consensus on health care or any other issue. If Pearlstein wishes to condemn the tactics used by Republicans, there are variety of more constructive ways to do so.
Sadly, this column -- which was quickly endorsed by Paul Krugman -- is just the latest example of how liberals are increasingly adopting the popular post-9/11 tactics of comparing one's political opponents to terrorists or other hated figures and smearing dissent as traitorous and disloyal. (For instance, Krugman recently accused Republicans of "treason against the planet.") At this point, we're stuck in a positive feedback loop of accusation, counter-accusation, and declining norms against this sort of rhetoric. The result is a more ugly and hateful debate.
Update 8/7 11:53 AM -- Matthew Yglesias agrees:
The problem here is that all terrorists are “political” terrorists. Terrorists murder innocent people to advance their political agenda. And Republican leaders clearly aren’t doing that. They’re engaging in dishonest and hypocritical rhetorical gambits. That’s bad and people should say so. But it’s not the same thing. I think it’s an unfortunate aspect of U.S. political institutions that they make it so easy for a defeated and discredited political opposition to mount a successful rear-guard campaign of political obstruction, but we’ve been playing the game with these rules for a long time so nobody should be surprised.
Update 8/7 12:20 PM: Regrettably, Pearlstein's column was also endorsed by Ezra Klein and Steve Benen. In particular, Benen highlights an unintentionally ironic line of Pearlstein's that I had missed:
Health reform is a test of whether this country can function once again as a civil society -- whether we can trust ourselves to embrace the big, important changes that require everyone to give up something in order to make everyone better off.
For the record, describing the other party as disloyal "political terrorists" promotes neither trust nor civility.
Update 8/7 2:09 PM: Pearlstein's column was also endorsed by Brad DeLong.
Update 8/9 9:32 PM: James Fallows too. It's practically the whole center-left blogosphere with the exception of Yglesias. Sigh.