James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Is America growing politically unstable?

January 10, 2011

Is America becoming less politically stable? A glance at some foreign newspapers would certainly give that impression. This is an important economic question. The global primacy of Treasury bonds and the dollar stems mostly from the nation’s massive economic might. But confidence in U.S. political stability also plays a role. The shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, though tragic, shouldn’t alter those perceptions — unless freedom of speech suffers.

Amateur criminal psychologists in the Democratic Party and liberal punditocracy have been quick to blame conservative political rhetoric for helping nudge an unbalanced 22-year-old into acting on his murderous impulses. Pointed charges have been flung at the Tea Party movement and at Sarah Palin. In 2008, her political team created an online map that featured 20 targeted Democratic congressional districts identified by crosshairs, including that of Giffords.

There’s no evidence at this stage that the shooter — whose bizarre anti-government rants centered on the use of grammar as mind control — ever saw the Palin map or even favored right-wing punditry. And Democratic operatives created similar midterm maps targeting Republicans. Within reason, though, even hard-hitting imagery is not necessarily sinister: political contests, like sports, are steeped in martial metaphors. Bids for election, for instance, are referred to as campaigns.

Yet political violence has been rare in the United States in recent years. That’s despite the disputed 2000 presidential election, the unpopular Iraq war and the election of the first black president.  Indeed, the World Bank ranks America above the UK when it comes to “political stability and absence of violence.” And the U.S. rank has actually been on the rise in recent years.

world bank

That ranking partly reflects the fact that even heated talk doesn’t cause instability. But if the freedom to indulge in such rhetoric and to protest is curtailed, it can be a different story — one reason, perhaps, why China receives low marks from the World Bank. So it’s disturbing that some in Congress are already working on new laws to limit political speech, in addition to ongoing attacks on talk radio. Those efforts, if they move toward limiting legitimate expression, should worry global investors far more than a one-off lunatic act, however shocking its results.

Comments

Are you being at all morally serious? Inciting violence IS a crime – it’s black-letter law – regardless of the 1st amendment. Yes, there is no evidence at this point that this guy was a devout follower of Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck or whoever, but that DOES NOT dismiss the inciting that these people put out there. It should be an excellent time to really bring to the fore the laws on record against this type of rhetoric, and if you don’t think so it says more about you than you realize. The phrase ‘blind ideologue’ comes to mind…

Posted by CDN_finance | Report as abusive
 

I don’t think Mr. Adams was thinking about elephants and jack@sses acting like turnips when he wrote this:

“Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” – John Quincy Adams

but, one the other hand, maybe he was thinking in just that matter.

Posted by madmilker | Report as abusive
 

CDN_finance, the criminal “incitement” that is unprotected by the First Amendment is speech that is (1) directed to inciting and (2)likely to incite imminent lawless action.

Neither Glenn Beck nor Sarah Palin has ever come remotely close to advocating lawless action, imminent or not. Using a macho metaphor like “reload” doesn’t come remotely close.

Ironically (speaking of irresponsible speech), if you had made that comment in Britain, you could be sued for libel. The fact that you only accused Palin and Beck of criminality because you’re ignorant of the law would be no excuse there — as opposed to here, where the Constitution requires that a libeled public figure show “actual malice” to recover damages.

Posted by TheProudDuck | Report as abusive
 

Hopefully this shocking incident will bring some civility back to the debate? The Tea Party isn’t alone in employing extreme rhetoric.

The situation reminds me in some ways of pre-War Nazi Germany. People were afraid and the easy path to power was to stoke the fires of nationalism and hate.

Hopefully our situation is less dire and our citizenry has learned from the examples of history.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive
 

America is growing up. Political dissent is not only healthy, but over-due. This is a society that suppresses opinion by a toxic conformity, not by rifle butts, but the effect is the same. Liberals can’t see that the same technique is used by the McCarthy’s against them that they are trying to use on the Becks, Palins, etc.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive
 

Hmmh… political assassinations..check. Elections decided arbitrarily by a partisan Supreme Court; or whose legitimacy is widely denied by ‘birthers’… check. Parties debating whether to default on government debt or raise the debt ceiling… check. Quantitative easing a/k/a printing paper money to cover economic failure…check. Crumbling infrastructure, power cuts… check. Arbitrary detentions without trial for ten years now in Guantanamo… check. Manufactured security scares, patdowns, X-ray video surveillance, secret subpoenas to uncover and silence interactions with dissident organizations like Wikileaks, check check check.

The only thing that separates the US from the developing world is the sense of entitlement and exorbitant privilege.

Posted by TwasBrillig | Report as abusive
 

Sarah Palin actually posted rifle cross-hairs over congressional Democrat targets in March 2010 — and (as of yesterday, at least) this posting was still showing up on her Facebook page. Presciently, Congresswoman Giffords actually then expressed concern about about what the implications of this targeting could be.

Posted by EBrown | Report as abusive
 

@TFF, I feel the same. Only I thought of the Republic of Weimar. Brüning and Centrum believed they had the extremists boxed in and under control. This proved a fateful misjudgment.

Posted by PeterMelzer | Report as abusive
 

The kind of rhetoric that (probably) aided and abetted this act won’t stop anytime soon, and those who shout their messages of hate will only shout louder now. Those who listen and believe they should act (on their own) will continue to ‘reload and aim’ and those who did the aiding and abetting will deny any responsibility. Even if it should happen to one of them, they will never connect the dots – because they don’t WANT to….
America is fast becoming a third world country, and nothing is going to stop that train – it’s already left the station. Just as the Einsteins left Germany in the 1930′s, smart scientists and businessmen are leaving the US, or at least hedging their bets, with houses in various locations, and dual citizenship.
I was just wondering which ‘General’ or GOP Senator will be the first to call for suspension of the constitution and marshal law ? ?

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive
 

I’ve heard a few clips from the some of the wackier right-wing radio shows on air in the US. While we’re obviously dealing with low-IQ presenters with irrational thought processes, their rhetoric is aimed at people who are easily moulded to a particular way of looking at things. Simplistic, to say the least. People like Palin know this and exploit accordingly. Her speeches are peppered with underlying references to acts of violence against her opponents. Racism has been bubbling just under the surface of right-wing speeches since Obama was elected and the shooting in Arizona came as little surprise to non-US observers.

The fact that the intended target escaped death while bystanders, including a child, were murdered is a sad reminder to those who abuse their freedom of speech that that abuse has consequences for people who have no hand, act or part in political movements of any hue.

America’s love affair with the gun may have its roots in insecurity, but bullets can be boomerangs in the hands of people who don’t, or can’t, act responsibly.

Posted by Hewson | Report as abusive
 

If you look at all the countries of the world.
The recent riots in the UK and the Muslim problem in Sweden and UK. AMERICA is the most stable, and safest country in the world. No, the gun laws will not change because all Glocks have high capacity magazines and everyone should not be punished for a individuals crime.

Posted by bryan1700 | Report as abusive
 

We are not Europe, we came to America to get away from Europe. We used our guns during the Revolutionary War to kick you Brits out. We are Citizens, you are Subjects, and you don`t have as many rights as we do.

Posted by bryan1700 | Report as abusive
 

Financial instability begs political instability. The shrill voices of the Limbaugh’s, Becks, Olbermann’s, and Palin’s contribute to discontent, but are not the cause of political instability. Still, discontent may contribute to injudicious political choices, and said choices may impact strategic plans [or a lack of].

Posted by SanPa | Report as abusive
 

ONLY SOMEONE WHO IS NOT A STUDENT OF HISTORY COULD WRITE SUCH A NAIVE ARTICLE. ANGRY VOICES BEGIN IN HOUSEHOLDS AND SPILL OVER INTO HISTORY AND WAR. BOSNIA HERZOGOVINA STARTED OUT AS A DISAGREEMENT BETWEEN NEIGHBORS. HITLER BEGAN HIS CAMPAIGN OF TERROR IN SPEECHES TO RECLAIM THE GLORY OF GERMANY. THE KKK WAS FORMED IN PIVATE ROOMS AS A WAY TO RETURN TO A SOUTHERN WAY OF LIFE. ANGRY WORDS HAVE LEGS AND ARMS AND FEET. THEY TRAVEL AND GROW INTO MOBS. AS AN AFRICAN AMERICAN WHO WAS BORN IN MISSISSIPPI IN THE HEIGHT OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS ERA, I AND MY FAMILY SAT DOWN AND TALKED AFTER THE HATE SPEECH STARTED TO GROW THESE LAST 2 YEARS. WE WERE JUST WAITING FOR THIS TO TURN TO MURDER. MY FAMILY AND I WERE CHASED BY THE KLAN. MY FATHER WAS SLATED FOR DEATH AFTER IT WAS FOUND OUT HE WAS WORKING IN THE UNDERGROUND CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. THE VERY FACT THAT THE REST OF AMERICA IS HIDING THEIR HEADS IN THE SAND ONLY ENSURES THAT THIS WILL HAPPEN AGAIN AND AGAIN. HATRED AND DEATH IS AS AMERICAN AS APPLE PIE. THE MAJORITY OF AMERICANS ARE PEACE LOVING PEOPLE. BUT THEY ARE LAZY AND THEY DONT WANT TO CONFRONT EVIL. WHO DOES? BUT AS A CITIZEN WHO HAS SEEN VIOLENCE START WITH WORDS AND END WITH DEATH I CAN ONLY SAY THAT WE WILL GET WHAT WE DESERVE BY OUR INACTION. WHEN THE MENTALLY ILL ARE TURNED OUT INTO THE STREET, NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE PULLED INTO. MENTAL ILLNESS AND ANGRY VOICES ARE A VOLATILE COMBINATION. THE MAN WHO KILLED DUKE FERDINAND AND PRECIPITATED WW1 WAS MENTALLY ILL OR SO THEY SAY. ALL OF THIS JUST REMINDS ME OF THE WORDS OF DR. KING. FOR EVIL TO TRIUMPH GOOD MEN MUST KEEP SILENT. THE BIBLE SAYS THE TONGUE IS A SMALL MEMBER BUT FULL OF DEADLY POISON. POISON KILLS.

Posted by CHURCHLADY53 | Report as abusive
 

sometimes winning at all costs is not winning at all.

Posted by phyvyn | Report as abusive
 

Speaking only for myself, I can attest how strained even the mildest political, economic, religious or social conversation between two people with opposing views can be here in the USA. It’s as though there’s no middle ground. One side must be 100% correct and the other must accept that and shut up. And, if you have the temerity to hew to your opinions that’s it, the conversation comes to an end and the other person wants nothing more to do with you. It’s happened to me many times in the recent past. To be friends with someone here you must agree with them about everything. It reaches the point of absurdity. I mentioned to a Nascar fan that I know that I don’t follow the sport and he glowered at me as though I’d insulted him in some way. Now, when we meet he’s cool to the point of iciness and has hardly a word to say. What’s that all about? It’s like that about everything in the States these days. Maybe I should move to Canada. I hear they’re sane up there.

Posted by IntoTheTardis | Report as abusive
 

The Son of Sam said he was motivated by his neighbor’s dog. Whatever sent this lunatic on a rampage, the effect has been a focus on Palin and her rhetoric, and on the decidedly uncivil cacophony that passes for political discourse in this country. I think you’re seeing the precipitation of something that has been brewing in America for a long time: people are sick of it. Sick of the hate. Sick of the noise. You can’t make that go away by deflecting the blame.

Posted by Fishrl | Report as abusive
 

It’s rediculous to say that this deranged person somehow was encouraged to kill a bunch of innocents by talk radio, facebook or any political campaign. Without even knowing anything about this man’s motivations it is disgusting to see people jump at the chance to blame those who disagree with them politically. I have heard many “dumb”, “whacko” arguments from both sides. Maybe he killed all those people because he saw the new black panthers intimidation at the polling places, or maybe it was Rush Limbaugh, but most probably he killed all those people because he was deranged psychotic person with no real plan or coherent idea at all.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive
 

just so long as new protection legislation does not legalize elimination of undesired competing or incumbent candidates.

Posted by phyvyn | Report as abusive
 

Depends on what you mean by the word “stable”.

If stability means that we will continue to behave as if a generation of white people who has totally dominated American Government at all levels for over 50 year is still alive, of course we are unstable. No “dead hand” can retain control of the country, whether they plan to or not. And when they lose control, their lackeys will also lose control. Change is inevitable. The question is how that change will happen.

Apparently no one in power and privilege is willing to give an inch. Since the current system is unstable, and since the mechanisms of change (i.e. the ballot box) have been co-opted, it is hard for the system to change except through a catastrophe. Unless political divergence is accepted into the monolithic “two party” party, we will have a great event of sudden change. The system as it exists is highly unstable.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive
 

ginchinchili, you are absolutely correct. Alas, I believe quite strongly that we will see your dark speculation play out, and soon. Rather than healing the economy through painful but prudent action beginning in 2008, our dear leaders kicked the can down the road and have ratcheted up the name-calling, blame-shifting, and covering-up ever since. We will have to pay the piper at some point, and when we do, it will be fantastically ugly.

As you’ve stated, the inevitable economic crash, if it’s coupled with some other tragedy, can easily clear the path for a charismatic leader to arise calling for desperate measures – and this is exactly what we’ll get.

I have been convinced for some time that we’re headed for civil war or at least the suspension of civil liberties, rule by martial law, and the creation of a repressive, autocratic regime. The elites who now own the country benefit greatly from this in the short term, and they’re driving us there pretty quickly.

The opportunity still remains for us to seize the real lesson in this terrible tragedy. Whether Laughner acted out of any discernible political motivation or not is not relevant. The lesson is that we can WAKE UP and restore sanity to our vigorous political debate.

In America, we can hang together, or we will surely all hang separately.

Posted by JackMack | Report as abusive
 

Whether or not this particular gunman was influenced by the violent rhetoric of the extreme right misses the point. The point is that Palin, Beck and the like are being extremely irresponsible with their violent metaphors and it raises the level of passion and hatred in the American zeitgeist. That is eventually bound to cause acts of politically motivated violence. You don’t hear radical members of the liberal left spouting gun metaphors. The radical right is fueling instability in this country. Shame on them for being so unpatriotic and for inciting homegrown terrorism.

Posted by mcooprec | Report as abusive
 

Enjoy your columns, James.

American political “instability” has taken the form of unprecedented (compared to most of the 20th century) turnover in political control of Congress (1994, 2006, 2010). I would argue the real instability is that, in all three cases, Congress changed control in response to failed national leadership (Clinton, Bush, Obama). High national campaign costs for the Presidency in the modern media era ensure that the office will be filled by the candidate who can represent the most monied special interests, as opposed to national interest. America’s presidents have been a series of bad jokes for the last 20+ years, so no surprise that America’s standing as the preferred destination/currency for capital has already started to erode. I think for many foreign investors perception of American political instability is only now catching-up with reality, post-Financial Crisis.

As for Tucson, I would say that if we are to remain a (relatively) free society then one deranged community college dropout with easy access to guns has to be treated as an outlier at this point (but what a horrible culmination of years of failed left-wing and right-wing social & economic policy embodied in one sick individual).

BTW somebody below said “you don’t hear radical members of the liberal left spouting gun metaphors”, which made me laugh considering the current occupant of the White House said, back in 2008, to the effect “I will bring a gun to a knife fight to defend the monied special interests who are working to get me elected”.

Posted by tmony30 | Report as abusive
 

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