Scorched-Earth Politics

November 28, 2006 | By | 16 Replies More

Greetings to the readers of Dangerous Intersection! My name is Adam Lee, though on the internet I usually go by Ebonmuse, and I’m the owner and proprietor of the weblog Daylight Atheism. Erich Vieth has given me the opportunity to write a guest post here, and I couldn’t turn down his generous offer.

As it happens, there is a topic I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. In particular, I was inspired by Michael Moore’s wonderful op-ed, A Liberal’s Pledge to Disheartened Conservatives, which I came across from a recent post on this very site. Say what you will about Michael Moore – many people have – but his essay, to me, stands out for its compassionate and gracious tone. It contains no gloating over the Republicans’ defeat, no mocking them for their loss. On the contrary, it empathizes with them and assures them that they have nothing to fear.

Especially noteworthy, I thought, was this point:

We will always respect you. We will never, ever, call you “unpatriotic” simply because you disagree with us. In fact, we encourage you to dissent and disagree with us.

Now, the question: Does anyone believe for even a moment that, if the Republican party had won these elections, we would be hearing the same tune from their pundits and spokespeople? The answer, which I hope should be obvious to everyone, is: Of course not.

Had the Republicans won, they would be gloating to high heaven, mocking and ridiculing their opponents, and casting sneering personal aspersions on them at every opportunity. I know that this would be the case because this is exactly what we have been hearing from them nonstop for the past six years: an endless stream of vicious, mean-spirited attacks on the courage, patriotism and personal character of anyone who dared disagree with them in any way.

I could cite many examples from the last few years, the most recent of which was Rush Limbaugh’s infamous suggestion that Michael J. Fox had purposely exaggerated the symptoms of his Parkinson’s disease. But there are many others: Max Cleland, a decorated war hero who lost three limbs defending his country, was compared to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Ann Coulter accused the widows of men who died on September 11 of “enjoying” their husbands’ deaths. Cindy Sheehan, whose son died in Iraq, was vilified in some of the most disgusting ways imaginable by right-wing pundits given a national platform by the media. John Kerry, a decorated veteran who volunteered to serve in Vietnam and was wounded in combat, had his service mocked by attendees of the 2004 Republican national convention. John Murtha, another decorated veteran and a former Marine, was called a coward on the very floor of the House by Republican Jean Schmidt. In the 2006 elections, Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq veteran who lost both her legs in the line of duty, was accused of wanting to “cut and run” by her congressional opponent. Republican Barbara Cubin, running for the U.S. House in Wyoming, walked over to the Libertarian candidate Thomas Rankin after a debate – Rankin is disabled by multiple sclerosis and uses an electric wheelchair – and said to him, “If you weren’t sitting in that chair, I’d slap you across the face.” And all these are just the best-known examples of a vast pool of right-wing sewage from which countless more equally repugnant statements could be produced.

The pattern that all these separate incidents reflect and exemplify is the scorched-earth strategy of politics adopted by today’s conservative right. Rather than encouraging people who disagree with them to voice their views, as Michael Moore and many other liberals have done, modern American conservatism has become a win-at-any-cost strategy that admits of no nuance and no dissent. The only thing that followers of this strategy value is getting their own way about everything, and anyone who disagrees with them is The Enemy and is to be destroyed, at all costs, by whatever means are necessary. There is no attack too vile, too outrageous, or too blatantly false for them to use, if it helps them achieve their goals.

There is no reason why it has to be this way. Respect for one’s opponents and for the political process is not a liberal value, nor is it a conservative value. It is an American value (which is not to say that it is not shared by many other countries as well).

The very reason we have a democracy is so we, as citizens, can come together and engage in a spirited process of debate and persuasion over which course of action will produce the greatest benefit for all of us, not just for the members of one political party. This political philosophy does not rule out vigorous disagreement, nor even strong criticism of a politician’s actions when that criticism is merited. Those things are normal parts of any healthy democracy.

What is out of bounds is the relentless demonization and non-stop ad hominem attacks that have become so common in American politics. While the Democrats are by no means innocent of this, the Republicans are far worse, using these tactics far more often – indeed routinely – and with an unparalleled level of viciousness and shamelessness. As I said, there is no reason why it must always be this way.

There are principled conservatives who recognize what has happened and lament what the Republican party has become – I would offer John Cole as one, and there are others. If we are fortunate, the Republicans’ recent crushing midterm losses will awaken more of them to the poisonous and irresponsible course of action their party has taken and give support to those who want to return it to the path of honesty and sanity.


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Category: American Culture, Communication, Politics

About the Author ()

I'm an author, skeptic and computer programmer living in New York City. I'm also an unapologetic atheist, and believe passionately that freethinkers deserve a much stronger voice in our culture than they've been given in the past. Since politicians and the mainstream media aren't willing to give us that, it falls to us to take our case directly to the public. Both on my own weblog, Daylight Atheism, and here on Dangerous Intersection, I hope to be able to spread the good news of freethought!

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  1. Daylight Atheism > New on Dangerous Intersection: Scorched-Earth Politics | October 18, 2010
  1. Erich Vieth says:


    Why do so many people lack the confidence and integrity to argue fairly? Many people–most politicians–don’t seem to care about credibility or truth seeking.

    To really “fight fair,” Step One is to put one’s opponent’s best foot forward. Otherwise, every argument is a straw man argument.

    Daniel Dennett recently commented on the importance of this first step in his review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion in Free Inquiry Magazine. I was reminded of Dennett's advice as I read your post regarding the truth-muzzling tactics of all-too-many politicians:

    The social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in Robert Axelrod’s legendary prisoner’s dilemma tournament) once promulgated a list of rules for how to write a successful critical commentary on an opponent’s work. First, he said, you must attempt to re-express your opponent’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your opponent says “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” Then, you should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement), and third, you should mention anything you have learned from your opponent. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism. I have found this a salutary discipline to follow–or, since it is challenging, to attempt to follow. When it succeeds, the results are gratifying . . .

  2. Jason Rayl says:

    The "tone" the right would have taken had they won in the last election would have remained consistent with that set by their "unelected" spokesman, Grover Norquist, when he said:

    "We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals–and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship. Bipartisanship is another name for date rape."

    I always considered that a perfect description for the new Republicans and neocons in particular. Pinch-mouthed, legs crossed, utterly defensive, and suspicious of anything affable or moderate or…fair.

  3. Jason Rayl says:

    Erich…it's not about Fair. It's about winning. Winning is seen as the justification for all. It's assumed that the best ideas win, but we all know that's nonsense. Look at betamax…

  4. Chris says:

    For principled conservative, I would suggest John Dean. Anyone who wonders where the current Republicans came from and why they are so little like the party of Eisenhower and Goldwater should read Dean's book Conservatives Without Conscience. In the book he describes a list of principles of conservatives *with* consciences, and I have to say, it's a viewpoint I haven't seen publicly articulated since I was old enough to follow politics (I'm 30, so basically the Clinton administration onward). It's also a viewpoint that I could respect even when I disagree with it, which I can't say for the current corrupt, ruthless, dishonest, anti-democratic, sanctimonious, hypocritical jackasses.

    In a hypothetical debate between Dean-like conservatives and Moore-like liberals (or whoever else you choose to hold up) I have some agreements and some disagreements with each, but the Gingriches, DeLays and Cheneys must be stopped by any means that don't themselves destroy democracy and the basic principles of the United States.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    When Republicans gained control of both the White House and Congress, their lust for absolute power was undisguised. One of their very first actions was to redraw voter district lines to heavily favor Republican candidates, virtually guaranteeing (or so they thought) re-election victories for their incumbents. With the belief they could not be unseated, they set about lording their power over the Democrat minority, ignoring the fact that their majority was barely above 50% of voters and only about 1/3 of the overall population…making it disturbingly similar to the dictatorship of Saddam's Sunni minority in Iraq.

    Indeed, just after the 2000 election, I had email exchanges with one conservative Republican who was eagerly looking forward to Congress passing laws that would "make Democrats scream." If this fellow was indicative of Republican sentiment, they seemed to not care what damage they did to the country, they just wanted Democrats to hate it.

    What is not clear to me is to what extent Democrats should take some blame for this Republican backlash, given that Dems did not seem to realize there was so much hatred toward them. Were Republicans just scumbags who were drunk on absolute power, or did Dems bring at least some of the hatred on themselves? No doubt the answer lies somewhere in between.

  6. Doug Purdie says:

    It's very cool that Mr. Moore is making nice now. Undoubtedly, he has retracted the statement he made to the German people that we (American voters) are "… the dumbest people on the face of the planet."

  7. Deb says:

    Any group of voters that would elect George W as head of their country are indeed, "the dumbest people on the face of the plant" and I'm ashamed (even though I voted against him BOTH times). Moore doesn't need to retract that statement, it is true.

  8. about the CT says:

    I need some information about the 911 conspiracy theory. Is it BS or not? My first reaction on seeing the conspiracy theories was to disregard them because they sounded ridiculous. A close friend recently told me that he "knows" that the towers could not have fallen the way they did without explosives planted beforehand. Then he said it was not "physically possible". Further, my friend cited the maximum burning temperature for jet fuel and said that it wasn't hot enough to melt steel. I told him that when objects collide, heat is generated, but he looked at me like I was a ghost. He also questioned the size of the whole in the pentagon, saying it was too small for a plane, and I responded that maybe the wings didn't have enough momentum to knock down the walls, only the fuselage and main body did. He again spoke of the "laws of physics" but had no specific evidence in terms of science.

    If anyone (erich/grumpy/jason/etc) has already written on the subject, or has any good links to share, I would really like to enlighten myself, and my friend.


  9. Dan Klarmann says:

    About the CT: Iron (all steel alloys) change phase and soften at a few hundred degrees. You don't need to melt them to guarantee structural failure. The heat of collision wouldn't add much, compared to thousands of gallons of burning jet fuel.

    If you have 20 stories of building drop the distance of one floor, this is an energy (1/2mv<sup>2</sup>) that will easily crush any building weaker than a modern bomb shelter.

    The Pentagon got lucky: They had been beefing up the strength of the outer walls to survive truck bombs, starting with the one the plane hit.

    I know a guy who "knows" that we couldn't have put a man on the moon (but my father was a NASA flight director).

    I know people who "know" that the world is younger than some pottery found at archaeological sites (but I've worked on 3 different archaeological dating methods applicable to pottery, so I know their accuracy).

    Your best armor against crazy theories is to learn the basics of math and science. At least, watch documentaries on PBS instead of Fox.

    One hint about the planes and planted explosives idea: They tried taking the towers down with explosives in 1993, and failed. If they (either they) could do it with explosives, why bother with a plane?

    What the current administration is doing to our country is quite bad enough without trying to attribute the attacks to them.

  10. schemanista says:

    CT: check out Ebon's blog at He's got one of the best take-downs of 9/11 conspiracy theories I've ever seen.

  11. grumpypilgrim says:

    about the CT writes: "He also questioned the size of the whole in the pentagon, saying it was too small for a plane, and I responded that maybe the wings didn’t have enough momentum to knock down the walls, only the fuselage and main body did."

    Wings are mostly just aerodynamic gas tanks — they have relatively little solid structure and virtually no ability to crash through a reinforced concrete wall.

  12. Thanks says:

    I knew I was in the right place, thanks Klarmy, and schemer (ebon). Unfortunately, I think I saw the gleam of religious insanity in my friend's eye, I hope Ebon's musings will help exorcise my friend of the CT demons.


  13. Doug Purdie says:


    I understand that you still lack respect for us, but my comment was about Michael Moore's view. He claims to have changed his mind. But, until he's retracts that statement, I'll take his supposed change of heart with a grain of salt.

    At least you are honest about your view of conservatives and Republicans. Still, you seemed to have missed Adam Lee's point about civil discourse. There are literally millions of highly intelligent and knowledgable people around the world, who, regardless of their high IQs and elevated education levels, still disagree. It's simply immature to insult the intelligence of people merely because they vote differently.

  14. Ebonmuse says:

    Hi all,

    I'd specifically point "about the CT" and anyone else who's interested to my Loose Marbles series, a response to one particular 9/11 conspiracy documentary.

    As far as Michael Moore, I don't know if he actually said such a thing, but if so, I'd have to disagree. I don't think American voters are stupid. I do think that they tend to be apathetic, and distressingly ignorant (not the same as unintelligent) about the rights that this country grants them. Just look at those surveys that routinely find only a small percentage of people who can list even a few of the freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights, for example. (I can't help laughing about the quote from that page that "one in five also believe that the right to drive is guaranteed by the First Amendment", although maybe I should be weeping instead.)

    I don't know if this ignorance is a failure of our public school systems, if most people are intrinsically uninterested or cynical about politics, or what. But when only 10% of American citizens realize that freedom of the press is a right, it's not hard to understand how demagogues who sling mud and wrap themselves in the flag can win elections on the strength of empty promises.

  15. Erich Vieth says:

    Jason: Sometimes being fair is about winning. As a result of working as an attorney, I have become convinced that my best chance to persuade a judge is to first convince the judge to trust me. What’s the best way to do that? By putting my opponent’s best foot forward in my own argument.

    I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen attorneys presenting a straw man version of their opponent’s argument, only to cause the judge to sigh and roll her eyes.

    If you’ve got something solid to offer, then, by all means, state your opponent’s argument clearly and vigorously. State it even better than your opponent can. Then show why your argument is superior. Sometimes, of course, you can’t do this. Whenever that happens you should consider that maybe your argument is not stronger than that of your opponent after all.

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