Will duels in the halls of Congress be next?

Obama as Hitler

Image by marcn via Flickr

Barack Obama ran for office as a healer, a man who promised to listen and to seek bipartisanship in decision-making.  Events of the past week have shown just how impossible a task that is.

Don’t take my word for it. Read Paul Krugman‘s column in today’s New York Times, “Paranoia Strikes Deep,” or Rick Ungar’s post yesterday on True/Slant, aptly (and remarkably similarly) titled “Palin-oia Strikes Deep.”

Neither is about the fact that just one Republican voted for the Democratic health care bill the House passed; representatives of the opposition party have every right — even duty — to disagree, passionately, about policy.

What they are about is something uglier: As Krugman notes, some of the protesters who gathered in Washington last week against pending House passage of a health care bill carried signs with photos of Holocaust victims in Nazi Germany. The signs, Dana Milbank reports in The Washington Post, read, “National Socialist Healthcare, Dachau, Germany, 1945.”

Paranoid fantasy is nothing new in the age of Obama. One needs look no further than the discredited cries this summer than health care legislation would mandate “death panels” to decide who lives and dies.

Krugman points out, however, that what happened last week in Washington around the House health care vote raises the venomous rhetoric to a new level. This time the nut cases comparing American health care proposals to Nazi extermination camps were participating in what was billed as a Republican “press conference.” Senior GOP lawmakers, Krugman reports, participated. If the style of protest troubled them, they didn’t let on, other than in tepid comments the next day by Rep. Eric Cantor, who said comparisons to Hitler “are not, I think, very helpful.”

Not helpful?  How about offensive? Or perhaps the congressman might note that the signs grossly distort and cheapen history?  But then, this was a Republican press conference.

Paranoia has long been deeply ingrained in American politics. After 9/11,  leftist conspiracy theorists circulated letters on the Internet insisting that the Bush Administration had ordered the attack on the World Trade Center.  In the 1960s, members of the blossoming right-wing John Birch Society saw Communists behind every suburban split-level. Examples can be drawn from nearly every decade of our history.

What’s different, Krugman suggests, is that the fanatics’ positions now are less and less distinguishable from the positions of the Republican leadership in Washington (although in the era of McCarthyism that was arguably true as well).

If disenchantment with the contents of a bill leads a Republican congressman to hurl, as Ungar notes, all 1990 pages onto the ground in front of the TV cameras, what hope do we as a nation have of working out policy disagreements on this or anything else?

Perhaps we are witnessing the throes of upheaval of the two-party system as we’ve known it for generations now. Whether it be called the Whigs, the Bull Moose or something a bit more contemporary,  a new political party with some serious backing may be needed before this country can break its accelerating spiral toward legislative gridlock.

Or perhaps we should turn back the clock a few centuries and invite members of Congress to challenge each other to duels, instead.  It might make for a smaller chamber, but at least it would tone down the increasingly ugly shouting.


About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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7 Responses to Will duels in the halls of Congress be next?

  1. LeeAnn Maton says:

    This group of protesters comparing Obama to Hitler has been camped out by the gates of my university on and off for a few weeks now. In Chicago, at least, they’re known as the LaRouche PAC and also promote Mars colonization. Seriously.

    Check out my post on it:

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      Can we put them on the first spaceship and wish them bon voyage?
      Seriously, I think the group is somewhat broader than that and, encouraged by the likes of Rep. Michele Bachmann and Rush Limbaugh, are marching forward loudly.

  2. Mr. Lanson,

    The opposition to health care reform has used irrational and offensive tactics for entirely rational and inoffensive reasons, it is the only chance for winning the debate. A rationale discussion of health care reform cannot be won by the opponents, every industrialized country in the world has some sort of national health insurance, more than few for over a century. The only real discussion is how to make it happen. However it is politically necessary for the Republicans to completely defeat health care reform, not help design it. This is so because as the party of big business, including the insurance business, has to serve its client base. Additionally, it is their best best to destroy Mr. Obama’s administration. Finally, their core voting base is made up of poorer, white, rural, Christians who badly need a national health reform. Should health care reform pass and be successful, it could seriously win over many of those voters to the Democratic Party, just as social security had done two generations earlier.

    Sure the Republican opponents of health care reform are “crazy”, they are crazy like a fox.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      What you’re describing has long been a Republican tactic, David. I agree. “Let’s talk about social issues so we shine the light away from economic injustice.” And so forth. But I see a gradual shift here. I think the fringe elements are starting to dictate terms, or at least being allowed to believe they dictate terms. Over time, appearance can become reality.

      • Mr. Lanson,

        It is the insurance industry that is driving and funding the show. The purple-faced people hurling bits of saliva from their rage engulfed lips are just the extras.

  3. By the mighty wrath of Xenu, I certainly hope to see duels in Congress. ‘Twould make CSPAN far more interesting.

    As long as it’s with muzzle-loading pistols or swords, I mean, fair’s fair.

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