After the horrible Tucson shooting, John McCain and even Roger Ailes, the Fox News president, joined President Obama's call for a more civil discourse. Ailes told his anchors and reporters to “tone it down.” McCain agreed with the President’s call for “… every American who participates in our political debates… to aspire to a more generous appreciation of one another and a more modest one of ourselves.”
But if the recent history of ACORN is a guide to the future, Obama’s attempt to jolt the nation into civility, something we desperately need, will fail. And unless Obama fights to protect his base from the upcoming attacks by the Right, he will undermine our chance for a resurgent movement based on respect, equality and democracy.
Imagine how Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News commentators from Sarah Palin to Glen Beck would have responded to the Tucson violence if we discovered the gunman had some connection to ACORN, the group demonized by conservatives as a dangerous, even criminal organization.
Would they have pushed their current talking points about the assassin being a lone wolf, a paranoid schizophrenic completely unaffected by the political rhetoric of the left?
Or would they have assumed as gospel that the left created an atmosphere that led to the assassination? Would they have used the occasion to destroy and vilify ACORN, formally the nation’s largest anti-poverty group, as well as its Democratic supporters?
We know the answer. The Fox News/Limbaugh/Palin crowd actually used the conduct of a few employees at ACORN to condemn the entire organization even though the evidence was crystal clear that the leadership of ACORN did not condone any of their activity and the group had a history of arguably the most effective antipoverty organization in America. No “lone wolf” talking points then. If this shooter had been tied to a left organization, the righties would have used the episode to create a reign of terror for progressives. If you have any doubt about my accusation, check out the right wing reaction to President Obama’s speech.
And now let’s consider what President Obama and the Democrats did in 2008 when FOX News and friends falsely blamed ACORN for the manufactured voter fraud and the pimp incident? Did Obama eloquently counsel moderation in tone? Did he make the point that an entire political organization or movement should not be blamed for the bizarre acts of a few? No. Obama and many Democrats in Congress piled on and without affording ACORN due process, stripped the organization of all federal funds, thereby destroying its reputation.
Yet, with regard to the Tucson attack, Obama’s instinct is to eloquently, movingly counsel restraint because we cannot know what was in the mind of Tucson shooter. We should not blame the attack on Palin’s “crosshairs” map or her repeated calls to “reload.” We should not suggest that Sharon Angle’s urging of “Second Amendment remedies” to “take out” her Democratic opponents had any bearing on content of the assassin’s delusions. I accept that point as valid.
Since there is no evidence that the Jared Loughner was in fact influenced by right wing atmospherics, Obama’s analysis will remain correct. And I do not intend to detract from Obama’s almost poetic elegies for the Tucson dead.
My issue is this: Why has Obama been so quick to exercise elegant restraint when it comes to protecting the extreme right, but not when it came to protecting the nation’s largest anti-poverty group?
At rallies and press events, McCain and Palin, pushed by the conservative base, described ACORN as a “radical” organization. Indeed, throughout the fall presidential campaign, McCain and Palin frequently accused ACORN of “voter fraud.” A Palin fund-raising letter stated: “We’ve always known the Obama-Biden Democrats will do anything to win this November, but we didn’t know how far their allies would go. The Obama-supported, far-left group, ACORN, has been accused of voter-registration fraud in a number of battleground states.”
The McCain campaign ran a video that claimed Barack Obama once worked for ACORN, repeated the accusation that ACORN was responsible for widespread voter-registration fraud, and falsely accused ACORN of forcing “…banks to issue risky home loans—the same types of loans that caused the financial crisis we’re in today.” (McCain’s anti-ACORN attack video was almost a word-for-word duplication of comments made by the right wing National Review columnist Stanley Kurtz.)
Fox News and conservative public officials enabled by their wealthy donors threatened, vilified and sued ACORN’s members, distorted the group’s record, which directly caused ACORN’s offices to be vandalized and its leaders to fear for their safety. The Right destroyed ACORN, with little pushback from liberals and progressives, empowering the Right to drive the limits of tolerable talk with each passing “discussion.” Yet Obama failed to urge the nation to exercise restraint to protect reputation of the anti-poverty group, and the safety of its members, mostly African-American.
Will Obama’s call for civility restrain the newly elected tea party members of Congress? Will Obama’s call for civility rein in The Right, now aided by the bombastic Congressman Darrell Issa (R.CA), the new chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, whose deceptive reports empowered the Congress to defund ACORN? Issa promises a Congressional investigation every week! Will The Right refrain from intimidating liberals and progressives, especially its most effective leaders and groups as illegitimate and anti-American, a strategy that has been part of a conservative movement’s agenda for decades?
Will their wealthy funders and corporate advertising departments, who have paid the salaries of Roger Ailes’ staff, right wing magazine writer, talk show host, and bloggers withdraw their funding?
We must condemn the violent rhetoric on TV and radio that can lead to vicious acts by deranged extremists. We must denounce corporations and public figures that inflame ordinary people in order to achieve concealed corporate political ends and enhance profits. We need to demand that corporations paying the bills stop feeding the violent rhetoric of the hate media. But it won’t matter what Obama says about civility.
Some Tea Party and other right wing activists will resort to violence in language and action because they feel their very existence is threatened by people of color who are ascending to power whether it be Obama in the White House, or Latinos demanding citizenship. A populist movement on the left to reduce unemployment, promote good jobs, and rein in the power of large corporations will help. But it will probably take a generational change, driven by race blindness in music, workplace integration, and intermarriage for the children of the Tea Party members to grow up not fearing people of color.
Editors' Note: John Atlas is the author of the new book Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group, available at Amazon and other book stores.