WASHINGTON -- This election season, a man was arrested for hitting a protester at a rally for Washington GOP Senate candidate Dino Rossi, a man stomped on the head of a woman at a campaign event for Kentucky GOP Senate candidate Rand Paul, local police wrestled to the ground a Democratic man at an event for Rep. Eric Cantor (R), Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) received suspicious powder to his office, biker supporters of Florida GOP congressional candidate Allen West harassed a Democratic tracker and Alaska GOP Senate candidate Joe Miller's private security force handcuffed and detained a reporter.
And all that was in just the past two weeks.
"It's been quite amazing over the last couple months, but really over the last two years," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups and extremism. "I'd date this, in many ways, to the rise to power of Obama. Many people we saw coming with AR-15s to town halls and so on, and all of that. But I do think that it's gotten even hotter out there. I think the reaction to the stomping of that woman's head has been quite amazing. The idea that the guy could say that he needed an apology and that he's not being condemned by the political class from sea to shining sea is astounding."
While there has been an increased number of highly publicized incidents in recent weeks, there was also a spike in violence or threatened violence during the health care debate toward lawmakers who supported the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. People vandalized congressional offices and threatened to assassinate officials and their families. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) had a picture of a noose faxed to his office after he voted for health care reform. A former militia member named Mike Vanderboegh even proudly took credit for encouraging people around the country to break the windows of lawmakers' offices.
There has also been a significant amount of violence-tinged rhetoric coming from politicians. Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle floated "Second Amendment remedies" as a "cure" for an out-of-control Congress. Last week, a Republican House candidate in Texas said a violent overthrow of the government is "on the table." Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has taken some flack for using gun imagery after the passage of health care reform, telling her supporters to "reload."
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, last year, hate groups stayed at record levels, and "anti-immigrant vigilante groups" soared by nearly 80 percent. The largest, jump, however, came from so-called "patriot" groups, made up of militias and other groups that distrust the federal government and believe its plotting to impose a "one-world government." Those rose 244 percent in 2009, going from 149 groups to 512.
Potok attributes the rise to three factors: 1) The change in racial demographics in the country, with Obama as the apotheosis of this fact, 2) anger over the rough economy, and 3) the mainstreaming of "demonizing propaganda and conspiracy theories," encouraged by the likes of Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
Potok noted that the rise in radical right-wing activity began even before Obama was elected, pointing to multiple plots to kill him. He added that the rise in violence has basically exclusively come from the far right.
"They [The far left] have burned down some things and done some various serious arson attacks, but it's tiny," he said. "There's a tiny anarchist movement, there's a small but fairly violent animal rights and radical environmental movement, but these things absolutely pale in comparison to the right. So no, I think the radical right...is large and growing, and I think that it's impossible to say that of the extreme left."
At a meeting with progressive bloggers yesterday, Obama addressed the stomping of the MoveOn.org activist and the rise in violence, saying, "I think that one of the things that I've always tried to promote is civility in politics. I think we can disagree vigorously without being disagreeable. And what we saw on the video was an example of people's passions just getting out of hand in ways that are disturbing."
"In fairness, I don't expect every candidate to be responsible for every single supporter's actions, but I do think that all of us have an obligation to set a tone where we say the other side is -- may be wrong but it's not evil, because when you start going down that path of demonizing folks, then these kinds of incidents are more likely to occur," he added. "And my expectation in the remainder of this campaign is that all candidates out there are a little more careful about making sure that they're framing the debate around issues and sending a clear message to their supporters that our democracy works when we disagree, we debate, we argue, it gets contentious, but that there are certain lines we don't cross."
Instead of a time-out after the stomping at the Paul rally, Tim Profitt -- the stomper -- has enraged many people even further by showing no remorse for giving the young woman a concussion, saying that she should actually apologize to him. MoveOn has launched a "You Can't Stomp On Us!" page, asking people to submit photos holding signs with the phrase. "In 2010, in American women deserve better than to be assaulted and then blamed for it," the site states. "In 2010, in America, engaging in political protest is not an invite for a beating."
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