This just over the transom from a regular reader:
Your recent, small quip about the possibility of accusing liberals of racism had me curious of something. Clearly you think that many on the left use unfair or unjust means of persuasion (Attempting to label their opponents as racists, for example.) And I've often heard it lamented that liberals tend to fight tooth and nail, using every fair and unfair advantage they can, in a political dispute (see the possibilities of the 'nuclear option' or bypassing a vote in this health care debate, etc.) while conservatives tend to be reluctant to.
So here's my question. Do you think conservatives should mimic liberals in this regard - fight tooth and nail, use every means available, including calling their opponents racists, etc,? Or do you think conservatives should (regardless of pure pragmatic effectiveness) always take the high road? Doubly so since conservatives actually believe there is a real high road to take?
I wish I had a good answer to this excellent question. First of all, I agree to the central presupposition of the question, namely, that leftists will do and say anything to win, no matter how outrageous. (Here is a recent example of the widespread race-baiting and slander that even prominent leftists routinely engage in.) They do it because they think the end justifies the means, and because of their conviction that, as the Bard has it, "all's fair in love and war." Leftists think of themselves as good and decent people who are battling valiantly against the dark forces of bigotry, racism, religious fanaticism, science-denial, etc. And because they see themselves in a noble fight against people who are not just wrong, but evil, they feel entirely justified in doing whatever it takes to win.
The essence of it is that the Left accepts and lives by what I call the Converse Clausewitz Principle: Politics is war conducted by other means. (Von Clausewitz's famous remark was to the effect that war is politics conducted by other means.) The party that ought to be opposing the Left, the Republicans, apparently does not believe that this is what politics is. This puts them at a serious disadvantage.
David Horowitz, commenting on "Politics is war conducted by other means," writes:
In political warfare you do not just fight to prevail in an argument, but rather to destroy the enemy's fighting ability. Republicans often seem to regard political combats as they would a debate before the Oxford Political Union, as though winning depended on rational arguments and carefully articulated principles. But the audience of politics is not made up of Oxford dons, and the rules are entirely different.
You have only thirty seconds to make your point. Even if you had time to develop an argument, the audience you need to reach (the undecided and those in the middle who are not paying much attention) would not get it. Your words would go over some of their heads and the rest would not even hear them (or quickly forget) amidst the bustle and pressure of everyday life. Worse, while you are making your argument the other side has already painted you as a mean-spirited, borderline racist controlled by religious zealots, securely in the pockets of the rich. Nobody who sees you in this way is going to listen to you in any case. You are politically dead.
Politics is war. Don't forget it. ("The Art of Political War" in Left Illusions: An Intellectual Odyssey Spence 2003, pp. 349-350)
It is clear how Horowitz would answer my reader's question: Because politics is war, conservatives, if they want to win, must deploy the same tactics the lefties deploy. Joe SixPack does not watch C-Span or read The Weekly Standard. He won't sit still for Newt Gingrich as this former history professor calmly articulates conservative principles. He needs to be fired up and energized. The Left understands this. You will remember that the race-hustling poverty pimp Jesse Jackson never missed an opportunity to refer to Gingrich's "Contract with America" as "Contract ON America." That outrageous slander was of course calculated and was effective. Leftists know how to fight dirty, and therefore the 'high road' is the road to political nowhere in present circumstances.
The fundamental problem, I am afraid, is that there is no longer any common ground. When people stand on common ground, they can iron out their inevitable differences in a civil manner within the context of shared assumptions. But when there are no longer any (or many) shared assumptions, then politics does become a form of warfare in which your opponent is no longer a fellow citizen committed to similar values, but an enemy who must be destroyed (if not physically, at least in respect of his political power) if you and your way of life are to be preserved.
As I have said before, the bigger and more intrusive the government, the more to fight over. If we could reduce government to its legitimate constitutionally justified functions, then we could reduce the amount of fighting. But of course the size, scope, and reach of government is precisely one of the issues most hotly debated.
Coming back to my reader's question, I incline toward the Horowitz answer, though I am not comfortable with it. You will have to decide for yourself, taking into consideration the particulars of your situation. Some of us are buying gold and 'lead.' I suspect things are going to get hot in the years to to come, and I'm not talking about global warming. Things are about to get interesting.