For Democrats, at least, Republican rage is the gift that keeps on giving.
At a fundraiser in San Jose last Sunday, President Obama drew applause by highlighting Republican debate-goers: "Has anybody been watching the debates lately? You've got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change. It's true. You've got audiences cheering at the prospect of somebody dying because they don't have health care and booing a service member in Iraq because they're gay."
On Monday, the DNC followed suit, releasing a video of GOP crowds cheering for capital punishment, screaming that a hypothetical uninsured man should die and booing a gay soldier serving in Iraq. The minute-long video closed by pointing out that "not one Republican candidate... spoke up to admonish the crowd and call for civility."
But as the media picks up on this narrative, they largely overlook the fact that these are not isolated incidents of extemporaneous spleen-venting. True, it may have been during a Tea Party-sponsored debate that audience members stole the spotlight by chiming in on society's responsibility to the uninsured. But this outpouring of conservative rage should not exclusively be read, in the words of Harvard professor Theda Skocpol, as "characteristic of many tea party Republicans." Though it contradicts the Tea Party-focused narrative that has dominated interpretations of the present state of the GOP, this phenomenon pre-dates Rick Santelli's trading floor rant, health-care reform and Glenn Beck.
The raw fury of Republican crowds broke into the national consciousness during the 2008 presidential campaign, as well. Various press reports from October 2008 noted a number of outbursts similar in their venom to this month's incidents. Shouts of "Terrorist!" or "Obama Osama!" were not out of place. Neither was the label of "traitor!" (used in reference to Obama) or cries of "off with his head!" On one noteworthy occasion, John McCain had to pause to explain to a crowd of supporters that his opponent was not "an Arab" but "a person that you do not have to be scared of as President of the United States."
It would be hard to argue that unvarnished anger is not uniquely central to modern Republican messaging. For further evidence, consider the keynote addresses of the 2004 Democratic and Republican National Conventions. A then-unknown Barack Obama reminded voters that "[t]here's not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there's the United States of America." Former Georgia Governor Zell Miller, on the other hand, characterized Democrats as "warped" and based his appeal on his extreme emotional state ("nothing makes this Marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators").
Taken collectively, these incidents should raise questions that are broader in scope than the present campaign. It seems safe to assume that history will not particularly care how Rick Santorum dealt with an awkward debate moment. Yet one party has become a clearinghouse for a set of impulses and emotions that should frighten or, at the very least, disconcert. Why? It should not be treated as coincidental that the party cheering for capital punishment and leaving the uninsured to die is the same party that, in 2009, stood united in dismissing "empathy" as a political and judicial virtue. Instead of focusing on whether these outbursts will come back to haunt the eventual Republican presidential nominee, reporters should spend more time asking what they say about modern-day movement conservatism.
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