The Real Lesson of the Tucson Tragedy

On Jan. 8, a man at war with "normal" unleashed other forces also at war with normal, people who are turning our politics into a freak show for their own cynical or sanctimonious reasons

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Illustration by Sean McCabe for TIME

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Dramatizing the Trivial
Meanwhile, we learned that Sarah Palin wasn't the only person who made Giffords a "target" in 2010 and put "a bull's eye" on her district in an online posting. Moulitsas did too — after Giffords joined a bunch of other Democrats in voting for a surveillance bill he didn't like. True, he didn't illustrate his list with crosshairs — or "surveyor's marks," as a Palin spokesperson argued implausibly after the shootings. But the metaphors were the same. This was a clarifying moment, for rarely have we seen the workings and values of this influential cabal so nakedly exposed. Right or left, their genius is for dramatizing trivial things; there is no other way to remain outraged 24/7. Now they were tripped up as they trivialized dramatic events. When a left-wing catalyst is caught denouncing a right-wing darling for an offense they both committed — an offense of distortion and exaggeration — their game starts to unravel. You see that it's not one side against the other. It's both sides against the normal.

Take a moment to ask why Moulitsas and Palin, who agree on almost nothing, would be united in targeting Giffords. The first reason is that she refuses to indulge their shared delusion that the U.S. would be a better place if it were run by ideologues. She is a person of moderate views and pragmatic politics, able to listen respectfully to the opinions of others and disagree without being disagreeable, which places her squarely in the American mainstream. She doesn't vote in lockstep with either party, and thus neither extreme is willing to tolerate her.

The other reason she and others like her end up as targets is that they represent districts that accurately reflect the divided mind of the American electorate. Elected officials in swing districts are always in danger of losing, and when one of them does, the creators of the target lists can boast of their fearsome power. It's like standing on a beach as the tide turns and claiming to control the ocean.

Like the Wizard of Oz, the cabal's entire authority hinges on this ability to exaggerate its power. Their numbers are, in fact, relatively small. The audience for the most popular talk-radio show is perhaps 1 in every 20 Americans. On cable TV, the most watched political pot stirrer draws roughly 1 out of every 100 Americans. As for Daily Kos, on an average day you would have to search through about 450 Americans to find one who had visited the site.

Informed and insightful political commentary has never been more abundant and easily available, thanks to the Internet. Yet the voices of the sensationalists are louder than ever. They tell us we live in a climate of fear despite all evidence to the contrary — the many peaceable assemblies, the nonviolent transfers of power, the freedom to speak and dissent without risk of punishment. It is a climate of their own creation, ginned up on both extremes for the purpose of keeping their audiences in a state of perpetual alarm.

Delusion is their business. They babble about bizarre alternate realities in which right-wing fanatics terrorize the land or a socialist in the White House plots to overthrow the Constitution. Theirs is a world in which Christopher Ruddy, prime fabulist of the Vince Foster "murder," sets up shop as a "news" mogul, and David Brock, confessed smear artist, pontificates on media ethics, and Glenn Beck, self-described "rodeo clown," masquerades as a historian, and Roger Ailes, the Fox News chief, issues an appeal for reasoned discourse just weeks after saying that NPR executives are "Nazis."

The events of the past week should awaken us to the danger of further indulging their delusions. Heeding the cabal entails serious consequences for normal Americans. When the cabal is allowed to define political reality, the result is dysfunctional government: A government in which extremists in both parties have created a perpetual shortage of federal judges by blocking nominations. A government that can't pass its appropriations bills or reform its broken entitlement programs. A government run by the sort of conniving operatives who can contemplate those bodies on the Tucson pavement and ask themselves — as one unnamed Democrat mused to Politico — how they can "deftly pin this on the Tea Partyers."

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