So, uh, George Packer at The New Yorker wants to give Republicans a piece of his mind:
In the tenth paragraph of a page A15 Times piece, Rick Santorum accuses Barack Obama of engaging in “absolutely un-American activities.” What are they? The article doesn’t say. The quote appears without explanation or comment, in an article entitled “Santorum’s Challenge: Broaden His Appeal Beyond Evangelical Christians.” Nor does the line show up anywhere else on the Web—apparently no reporter in the mob following the candidates through the last days before the Iowa caucuses thought it worth writing down, and no blogger thought it worth repeating. It was just a throwaway line, a hunk of spoiled red meat tossed at the crowd in a Sioux City coffee shop, no more newsworthy than saying, “It’s a great day to be an Iowan!” And the crowd ate it up, applauding lustily. According to the Times, Santorum, surging in the polls, “became emotional at times.” He “wore a beaming smile on his face.” He said that he was running for his children’s sake. A supporter from a nearby town said that he liked Santorum for his avoidance of hyperbole: “Santorum doesn’t make crazy statements.”
Several things are worth noting here. The first is that, in today’s Republican politics, one reliable way to reach beyond the Christian base is by whipping up nationalistic hysteria with language lifted straight from the McCarthy era. If criminalizing all abortions and nullifying all gay marriages are a little too sectarian for you, surely you’d like to try some old-fashioned traitor-hunting. (Santorum has also accused Obama of “sid[ing] with evil” in Iran, a country with which he plainly wants to go to war.)
The second is that this kind of gutter rhetoric is so routine in the Republican campaign that it’s not worth a political journalist’s time to point it out. In 2008, when Michele Bachmann suggested that Barack Obama and an unknown number of her colleagues in Congress were anti-American, there was a flurry of criticism; three years later, when a surging Presidential candidate states it flatly about a sitting President, there’s no response at all. Certain forms of deterioration—like writers using “impact” as a verb, or basketball coaches screaming about every foul—become acceptable by attrition, because critics lose the energy to call them out. Eventually, people even stop remembering that they’re wrong.
And it actually degenerates from there -- Packer essentially calls Republicans thugs. The New Yorker is an awfully fine magazine, but for some reason it seems to run off the rails rather frequently when writing about conservative politics. Case in point: If Packer expects to retain credibility on this topic, he should acknowledge that questionable rhetoric isn't solely a GOP problem. Failing that, I hope Packer is feeling refreshed from that eight-year coma he was in when liberal America lost its collective mind hurling invective at George W. Bush.
As for Santorum accusing the president of "un-American activities," certainly that remark is not above criticism. But at least he was speaking off the cuff. Surely Packer remembers when the Democratic Speaker of the House called protests against the Democrats health care bill "un-American" and committed it to print in one of the nation's largest newspapers? I'm also pretty sure that calling Tea Partiers "terrorists," as Joe Biden reportedly did, is more or less the same thing accusing a large chunk of the electorate of "un-American activities."
As for decrying the candidates's supposed desire to criminalize all abortions and nullify gay marriages, I'm not sure to what extent that's hyperbole on Packer's part. I would, however, note that a majority of the country is opposed abortion to gay marriage. That a politician would reflect the views of the majority of the people he seeks to curry votes from does not exactly constitute pandering to the "Christian base is by whipping up nationalistic hysteria" or what have you. (Note that our current Democratic president running for reelection also happens to be opposed to gay marriage.) Of course, maybe Packer's being ill-served by the media accounts that he finds so troubling. The media seems to have a particular problem fairly rendering what GOP candidates have said recently.
Still, if you're going to tut-tut about the tone of politics these days (and many people share some of Packer's general concerns here), one really ought to be clear-eyed about the fact that questionable rhetoric comes from across the political spectrum. As it is, Packer's regrettably selective criticism means he's contributing to the very problem he seeks to remedy.