Hannity, Shapiro, and the Politics of Situational Patriotism

Conservative pundits have proven pretty good at affecting a rightward shift of what we think of as the mainstream.

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Conservative talk show host Sean Hannity speaks during a debate against liberal Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson, Friday, May 4, 2007, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Remember when conservatives used to say, "America, love it or leave it"? When just about any protest coming from somewhere else along the ideological spectrum was cause to question that person's loyalty and love of country? Ah yes. Those were the days.

But now, after decades of positioning government as the enemy, the more recent rise of Tea Party populism, and the prospects of a two-term Democratic president, some on the right find themselves in rather a different place. Instead of impugning the loyalties of others for their perceived lack of patriotism, they are left to employ a sort of situational patriotism all their own.

Take, for example, Ben Shapiro. You may not know who Shapiro is. I certainly didn't (apparently he's an "Editor-at-Large" for Breitbart.com). But then he went on CNN and offered this little chestnut: Average citizens are entitled to semi-automatic weapons because the U.S. government may follow the path of Nazi Germany (his analogy, not mine) and descend into tyranny.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

That may sound intemperate to you, but Shapiro is hardly alone among those tramping about the outer limits these days. On his radio program, Sean Hannity said he could well understand why "more conservative states" might say, "I don't want to be a part of this union anymore," and secede from the United States. The justification: Taxes on the very wealthy had been raised to levels not seen since (gasp) the 1990s.

There's more. The now infamous freak-out of one Alex Jones on Piers Morgan's show; Texas Rep. Steven Stockman's pronouncement that executive branch efforts to reduce gun violence are an "existential threat to the nation"; Mark Levin's claim to a "fury" about the "imperial presidency " of Barack Obama that he can "barely contain." And much more is sure to come on the heels of the president's announcement yesterday.

Now to be clear, not every conservative is marching to the beat of the same drum. See what David Frum's been doing on Twitter (and elsewhere), for example. But the rumblings from some quarters are sufficient that it's hard not to wonder: What's really going on here? Authentic anger, or something more tactical? I think the answer is…yes.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]

Consider Shapiro's statement on a gun control debate that centers on an horrific massacre and whether there are any sensible measures we can take—like banning the semi-automatic weapon the shooter used—to help ensure something like that never happens again. A debate on the merits might be: Are there productive uses for semi-automatic firearms when put in the hands of average citizens that we can weigh against the damage they cause when employed with malicious intent? For some of us at least, it's hard to think of any productive uses that outweigh the nefarious ones.

But what if you expand the playing field so much that ideas like defending ourselves from the U.S. military is treated like a rational justification? If that's the kind of thing that average Americans should be preparing for in the ordinary course of business then hell, semi-automatics aren't going to do the trick. Keeping a herd of angry dinosaurs in the backyard is more like it.

And how about Hannity. Congress just raised taxes on the very wealthy to a rate higher than under President George W. Bush, but the same as under President Bill Clinton, and much, much lower than under a whole host of other presidents. In other words, we might not like higher taxes, but the current tax rate on the very wealthy is well within range of the rates they've historically been asked to pay.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

But Hannity's casual suggestion that all those folks signing secession petitions are making a reasonable case serves the same purpose as Shapiro's, if about a different issue: If slightly higher taxes on a small sliver of the wealthiest Americans during a time of troubling deficits really is cause for secession, then God forbid considering any other tax increases on anyone else for any reason.

In other words, Shapiro and Hannity (and Stockman and Levin, etc.) are less interested in convincing you that they are right than they are in expanding the range of conservative ideas that can be deemed reasonable, while at the same time narrowing the space left for ideas of a more moderate or liberal persuasion. It's an attempt to affect a rightward shift of what we think of as the mainstream, something conservative pundits have proven pretty good at.

And maybe it will work. But you gotta wonder at what point all of this comes back to bite them. The fact is, Shapiro's remarks betray a deep suspicion of the United States, and Hannity's casual indifference to the essential nature of this country and the strength we derive from its ideological and geographic breadth, is fairly breathtaking.

[See 2012: The Year in Cartoons.]

Here's something worth remembering: Tax rates go up and tax rates go down. We spend more and we spend less. Sometimes what you believe is in vogue and sometimes it isn't. That's part of the democratic process at the heart of our country, the evolutions the country goes through with each succeeding generation.

If you only love America when it agrees with you, that isn't love at all. It's a kind of situational patriotism that says more about you than fidelity to your country. Makes one yearn for a time when patriotism was made of sterner stuff.

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