The online response to last Thursday's senseless shooting at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas — which left five police officers dead and several others in critical condition — was as impulsive and insensitive as it was petty and partisan. Within hours, right-wingers had already begun blaming President Obama for provoking this kind of despicable violence because he has acknowledged that America’s criminal justice system has systemic racial disparities and is in need of reform — which evidence and data overwhelmingly supports. On Twitter, former congressman Joe Walsh wrote (and then deleted) a threatening statement to the president and BLM protesters:
“This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.”
And Obama is the one inciting violence?
One has come to expect this kind of blame-game in the age of Red and Blue states and social media. In today’s hyper-partisan political climate, every tragedy or act of terror must be blamed on one's political opponents, whether it is warranted or not (sometimes it is, although it is almost always exaggerated). And with this eagerness to condemn and accuse and score political points, rational discourse tends to be stifled and solutions are rarely found (or they never materialize).
In an article posted the morning after the shooting, The Hill contributor Salena Zito criticized this impulsive need to blame political opponents for tragedies, and argued that politics had to “take a back seat” after a week of such deplorable violence. While this is obviously commendable, Zito goes on to place blame equally on both sides for today's hyper-partisan climate equally.
“How did we get here?” asks Zito. “It’s a long story, but the short version is divisional politics; both parties do it. Why? Because it’s how you win when your country is split 50-50. You make your opponent so repulsive that voters don’t show up for either of you and you drive your base to the ballot box. It's a method that has slowly eroded our trust with politicians, with people who are different with us and has given us a knee-jerk reflex to always want to blame the other guy, because our ‘leaders’ have been doing that method all of our lives.”
It's true, both parties do it (though hardly to the same extent) — and there are hardliners on both the left and right, whether it's a Social Justice Warrior declaring that all cops are racist and corrupt (it was particularly disturbing to see those on the fringes of social media praising the shooter, Micah Xavier Johnson) or a right-winger suggesting that an unarmed black man deserved to die because he had a criminal history.
But to say that each side is equally responsible for today’s polarization is patently absurd. It may seem like the mature and righteous thing to do, but that doesn't mean it's correct. This is the kind of attitude that Paul Krugman once called the “centrist cop-out”:
“Many pundits view taking a position in the middle of the political spectrum as a virtue in itself," writes Krugman. "I don’t. Wisdom doesn’t necessarily reside in the middle of the road, and I want leaders who do the right thing, not the centrist thing.”
Being under no illusions of evenhandedness, it is obvious that the GOP is the driving force behind today's hyper-partisan climate. Over the past several decades, the Republican party has become increasingly extreme and divisive, with its most prominent members approaching politics like a gladiator fight to the death in the Roman coliseum. Democrats are now perceived by Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz not as colleagues and citizens with differences of opinion but mortal enemies who must be defeated at all costs (the party's hatred of President Obama, and the many bizarre conspiracy theories about him being un-American and an enemy-sympathizer, illustrates this partisan insanity). As Mike Lofgren, former Republican and aide to Gov. John Kasich (R-OH), writes in his acclaimed book "The Party is Over."
“By the 2000 election, and certainly after 9/11, the Republican party was no longer a conservative party in the traditional sense, as that word has been understood in Western political culture. Its belief in polarizing language and tactics, a militant and militarized foreign policy, and a constant search for moral enemies, foreign and domestic alike, qualifies the current GOP as a radical right-wing party, not a conservative one.”
Opportunists and demagogues like Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump transformed the GOP into a party of paranoid extremists, and today's polarizing political climate is largely a result of this transformation.
Of course, none of this is to say that the left or center-left is blameless; as I noted above, there are plenty of left-wing hardliners and extremists floating around social media and academia — and some even stooped to praising the actions of Johnson after the shooting. These individuals can be called illiberal or authoritarian leftists, who, just like the right-wingers Lofgren describes above, use “polarizing language and tactics,” are in “constant search for moral enemies,” and tend to promote intolerance and intellectual dishonesty.
Ultimately, however, when you compare the broad political movements on the left and right, it becomes clear that partisan conflict is the right-wing’s bread and butter, while the left is by and large more interested in a unifying sort of politics that promotes economic and social justice. On the left, the divisive, dogmatic and narrow-minded extremists are in the minority; on the right, they now make up enough of a majority to nominate someone like Donald Trump.