Furrowing his brow at the protesters rudely demonstrating their ingratitude to benevolent old Uncle Sam, Bill Clinton decided to take a trip down memory lane. While others indulge their 1990s nostalgia by watching Seinfeld reruns and listening to Hootie and the Blowfish CDs, Clinton prefers to repeat his favorite smears of anyone uncouth enough to criticize the government from the right.
Then as now, our leaders had to deal with a fearsome tide of antigovernment extremism. Today we have Michelle Bachmann, the Republican congresswoman from Minnesota. Back then, it was Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and a Democratic president who stood up and announced the end of the "era of big government."
Well, never mind that last example. But Clinton is concerned that his former sidekick Al Gore made things worse with his prized invention. "Because of the Internet, there is this vast echo chamber and our advocacy reaches into corners that never would have been possible before," Clinton told the New York Times. The unwashed masses lapping up this advocacy may be "serious and seriously disturbed."
Protest against a Republican-run federal government, no matter how intemperate, is patriotic. Protest against Democratic-controlled government leads inexorably Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. No matter how anfractuous the logic, the fact that such protest is now widespread is what has Clinton seriously disturbed.
Such splendid demagoguery worked wonders for Clinton back in 1995, when he shamelessly exploited McVeigh's atrocities to turn back rising conservative and populist opposition to his agenda. But this latest rendition also serves to remind those who cannot tell the difference between a Tea Party protest and a Klan rally that things weren't much different the last time a liberal president tried to govern, even though that president was Southern and white.
Despite Clinton's pasty whiteness, the liberal line of attack wasn't much different. Then as now, all conservative opposition was really just the thinly veiled racism of "angry white males." This held true even when the issue at hand had no obvious racial connotations. Right before the 1994 elections, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) told a Manhattan audience that the Klan's white hoods had been replaced with "black suits and red ties."
"It's not 'spic' and 'nigger' anymore," Rangel said of the new racists stalking the land. "They say, 'Let's cut taxes.'" (By the way, there is more evidence of old Charlie using such ugly racial slurs than the average Tea Party activist.) This was back when only Toni Morrison believed we had a black president, so the notion that it is racist to disagree with liberals about health care reform is nothing new under the sun.
Violence and genuine racism -- like that seen in last weekend's white supremacist rally in Los Angeles -- should be condemned by all people of goodwill across the political spectrum. Yet when a former president makes unsubstantiated allegations that political opponents are inciting people to violence, when regular columnists for the Washington Post and the New York Times liken mainstream critics of the president to the bigotry of David Duke, when protests are denounced as racist simply because most of the people attending them are white, that kind of rhetoric -- sometimes calculated, sometimes incautious -- is itself a contribution to the coarsening of our public discourse.
Or perhaps it is something worse. Political passions in this country have been inflamed since at least the 2000 Florida recount, maybe the Clinton impeachment two years before. Demographically, America is becoming more diverse. In such a climate, racializing disputes that are not inherently racial in nature and inflating the profile of real hate groups is not just wrong -- it is profoundly irresponsible.
"All politics are local," Tip O'Neill famously observed. That kind of provincialism is compatible with social harmony. "All politics are identity politics" is a maxim that will tear the country apart, as it ignores any concept of the common good. It will lead to more hate and more division, not less.
Listen to Bill Clinton. "There can be real consequences when what you say animates people who do things you would never do," the former president recently warned. On that score, he is correct.
Share this Article
Like this Article
Print this ArticlePrint Article