Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz has gotten a lot of grief lately, and for good reason. His speculation about whether Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel received secret payments from North Korea was the kind of unsubstantiated smear that takes your breath away. But in all the ballyhoo over Cruz something else seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle: the extent to which the unsubstantiated smear has become stock in trade for Tea Party senators.
Take, for example, Wisconsin's Ron Johnson. Earlier this month he gave a speech in which he set out to "describe" what "patriots," "people who like freedom," and "people who like this country" are "up against" these days. The answer: "liberals, progressives, Democrats, whatever they call themselves nowadays, Socialists, Marxists."
That's right, Senator Johnson. Having determined that the term "liberal" is too freighted with negative connotations, there are a lot of us Democrats calling ourselves Marxists these days. It's a bit of rebranding and we have high hopes.
But regardless of what we call ourselves, the implication of Johnson's observation is pretty clear: on the one side you have patriots (people like Johnson), and on the other you have people who neither love freedom nor America—those are the Democrats.
In the same speech, Johnson said "Liberals have had control of our culture now for about 20 years." It's part of their "diabolically simple" strategy to undo America. Wow, liberals must be a pretty nefarious bunch. Need proof? Johnson doesn't offer much, but maybe he doesn't need to. Twenty years ago was 1993. That year cross-dressing home wrecker Mrs. Doubtfire took the country by storm. It was pretty much everything liberals stand for in 125 minutes of heart-tugging hilarity.
And if Cruz and Johnson aren't enough for you, take a listen to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. In a recent interview with NPR Paul was asked to explain how Mitt Romney could have lost in 2012. Paul's explanation: "it is much easier to offer people something for nothing, than it is to tell people that in reality hard work and sweat equity is how a country gets rich." That evidently appealed to Obama voters because the president said "he was going to take from the rich and give to the poor. And there's always more poor than there are rich. So, you can see in a democracy it's easier to sell that message."
Oh, OK. The way to success in America is hard work. But "poor" people would rather have the spoils of success handed to them than have to work hard. So a president who promises to do that has found himself a winning message. What a terrific view of people who labor at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder, the aspirations they have for themselves and their families, and the kinds of things they think about when they go to the voting booth (to say nothing of how it characterizes Obama supporters: we're lazy, and just looking for a handout.)
To be sure, this isn't the first time we've ever heard people say things like that. Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Dinesh D'Souza have been peddling this pabulum for years. And anyone who's been in the middle of a congressional election with a Tea Party candidate has heard all of this and more.
But the frequency with which this kind of rhetoric emanates from conservative quarters ought not to inure us to its impact. It encourages the transformation of ideological differences into bright lines that allegedly divide good people from bad, and it gives sanction to the notion that difference is itself sufficient evidence that the other person could be engaged in any manner of nefarious conduct.
It's the kind of thing that you'd like to think wouldn't work in the American political system. But for the last couple of election cycles its worked like gangbusters, tapping a deep vein of grievance that animates the Tea Party, a myopic sense of victimhood and entitlement.
So holding Senator Cruz to account for his slander was a good thing. But if the recent past is any indication, the smear isn't going anywhere. It wins votes. And that should be troubling to all of us, Democrats and Republicans, who share the pluralistic notions of democracy to which our country has long aspired.