Liberals and Civility: Why Democrats Should Welcome a Rough Debate

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Wall Street Journal

Liberals and Civility: Why Democrats Should Welcome a Rough Debate

Now that their summer of bluster is over, conservatives may congratulate themselves on a job well done. The stout-hearted defenders of freedom declared that government could never work, sometimes citing examples of misgovernment drawn from periods of conservative rule to make their case.

They deplored the prospect of government intrusion into the economy, ignoring the fact that our current troubles are the consequence of government's withdrawal from the economy. They insisted that every government action, due to some mysterious law of freedom physics, produces an equal and opposite diminution of personal liberty.

Although these accusations were often crudely posed, conservatives deserve credit for showing up to the debate. The same cannot be said of the Democrats.

In truth, there has been no better time for a vindication of activist, Rooseveltian government since the 1930s. The laissez-faire faith lies in pieces around us. Conservative dogmatism lay behind many of the Bush administration's worst blunders, including some of the monumental screw-ups to which conservative pundits point when denouncing government generally.

But that is not how the Democrats have chosen to respond. Instead, they pine for civility, pretending that the argument comes down to the scary rhetoric issuing from the right. "I have concerns about some of the language that is being used, because I saw this myself in the late '70s in San Francisco," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week. "This kind of rhetoric was very frightening, and it created a climate in which violence took place."

I have concerns about the rhetoric being used as well, and about the louts and the bullies who use it. But it seems clear that Mrs. Pelosi's aim is to avoid debate when she ought to be wading into the thick of it. Her team has the arguments; it has the facts; it has gale-force historical winds at its back: Why not give back as good as you get? Why not simply beat the other side instead of complaining tearfully that they play too rough?

Besides, retreating into some imagined genteel tradition offers little safety. For one thing, it goes against the old rough-and-tumble image of the Democratic Party and confirms instead the effete latte-and-sushi stereotype of recent years. For another, thanks to the 1960s and the Clinton presidency, morality and civility are concepts the right believes it owns. Republican legislators can heckle the president during a speech to a joint session of Congress and this will not change. No contradiction is stark enough to budge conservatives from the point: In fact, during the nation's last civility panic, even Ann Coulter was able to get in on the deploring.

President Obama, talking about his own civility concerns in an interview with CBS's Bob Schieffer on Sunday, said he understands that the health-care debate is a "proxy for a broader set of issues about how much government should be involved in our economy." What's strange is that he apparently doesn't believe he needs to take a side on those broader issues. Instead, he used his many interviews on Sunday to dodge those issues altogether, to insist that he isn't really proposing a grand scheme of government involvement at all, that those who worry about such things needn't be concerned.

Mr. Obama is probably the greatest orator my generation has produced; he swept into office last year with more of a mandate than any president since Ronald Reagan. Mrs. Pelosi commands a large majority in the House of Representatives. Both are talented politicians at the zenith of their careers. Facts and stories that make the liberal case are conveniently at hand-in every paper's headlines, in every voter's personal experiences.

Their opponents, meanwhile, have responded to the economic crisis by doubling down on the bad ideas that got us here in the first place. Their most prominent representative is the conspiracy-minded TV weeper Glenn Beck.

The health-care showdown should have been a one-sided blowout. And yet it is the Democrats who are running to the playground monitor and watching their support drain away.

Why? Because from the beginning they have understood the problem primarily as a technical consumer issue, not a bid for social justice in a manifestly unjust time. In their criticism of the insurance industry they have largely avoided terms like "profiteering" in favor of dry talk about lower costs and more competition-hardly an ideal platform from which to launch a crusade.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have been crusading nonstop since the days of Barry Goldwater. Every economic issue is a grand moral issue for them-this particular one, even in its lukewarm Senate Finance Committee version, is "a stunning assault on liberty," according to Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.)-and until liberals are prepared to contest those terms, they will have to live with a little incivility.

Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is the author of the just-published Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (Metropolitan Books). His other books include The Wrecking Crew, What's the Matter with Kansas? and One Market Under God. He is the “Easy Chair” columnist for Harper’s Magazine and the founding editor of The Baffler.

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