The CBS pollsters wouldn’t have taken the poll if they didn’t know that a lot of people have a substantial psychological investment in how it came out. Conservatives are predictably heartened by the results because they confirm their faith that, by and large, the American people have the good sense to resist the fabrications of the liberal elite. Liberals are probably disheartened at what they see as yet another demonstration of the power of the right-wing propaganda machine.“Nearly six in 10 Americans say the country's heated political rhetoric is not to blame for the Tucson shooting rampage that left six dead and critically wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, according to a CBS News poll. . . .
“Overall, 57 percent of respondents said the harsh political tone had nothing to do with the shooting, compared to 32 percent who felt it did. Republicans were more likely to feel the two were unrelated - 69 percent said rhetoric was not to blame; 19 percent said it played a part. Democrats were more split on the issue - 49 percent saw no connection; 42 percent said there was.
“Independents more closely reflected the overall breakdown - 56 percent said rhetoric had nothing to do with the attack; 33 percent felt it did.”
But take a step back and notice something odd about the poll: why are pollsters suddenly asking the public a question which we'd normally address to court-appointed psychologists and be perfectly happy to defer to their answers? The answer, of course, is what we’re really arguing about respecting the Giffords shooting isn’t some fine point of psycho-pathology, but a matter of public morality.
Notice the majority opinion that the CBS pollsters elicited—that political rhetoric “had nothing to do with” or “is not to blame for” the shooting—straddles the analytical line separating factual beliefs from normative judgments. Under the most natural interpretation, the majority is saying both that nothing in particular said by any politician caused the shooting as a matter of fact and that no particular politician or group of politicians is morally culpable for the shooting. It’s no accident that those two propositions are tangled together because most of us think that factually causing other people to act regrettably is a necessary condition of immoral incitement.
Conceptually speaking, the liberal pundits who opened the debate over the Giffords shooting within hours of it were always shooting from the hip themselves. They jumped at the chance to opine that the assassination attempt was “caused” or “incited by” intemperate rhetoric because they thought they could turn an argument about civic norms into a forensic fact. When it became clear that the shooter’s obsession with Giffords predated the rhetoric that the liberal pundits were referencing and that there wasn’t a shred of evidence that the shooter had heard any of it, people like Paul Krugman commenced a tactical retreat. All of a sudden the plain meaning of “incitement” was beside the point; the line was that conservative politicians had generated a “climate of hate,” which rendered all Democratic politicians vulnerable to violence even if it didn't cause the Gifford-shooting. If you set your mind to it, you could probably come up a proposition having as little empirical and moral content as that, but it wouldn’t be easy.
Liberals’ beef with conservative politicians like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachman can only be that they’re disposed to say things that violate generally observed norms of civically responsible political discourse. To make that charge stick, you’d have to enunciate a standard of civility that liberal and moderate politicians observe and conservative politicians routinely violate. So far all we’ve gotten from liberals deploring the climate of hate is vaporous words like these from Krugman: “[T]here isn’t any place for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary.” Within hours of his saying it, however, the conservative blogosphere had produced countless examples of Democratic politicians and pundits saying things that, by any reasonable standard were more “eliminationalist” than anything attributed to Palin or Bachman. You can excuse conservatives for getting the idea that Krugman’s trying to eliminate them from the public debate.
If liberals can’t do better than this, and to my knowledge none have so far, it’s time to give it a rest.