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Liberals fight back; pundits shocked

The alarming rise in liberal aggression is now the subject of regular bulletins from pundits of varying persuasions and temperaments.

As certain disquieting elements converge, portents of doom can no longer be ignored: The same progressives who once fit the wimp stereotype are answering back when attacked. The same Democrats who could find no voice last year are bellowing now. The most outspoken challenger to George W. Bush is leading in key primary states. And certain liberal authors who rudely call a liar a liar are selling thousands of books.

To our op-ed philosophers, this eruption on the left seems unnatural, irrational and dangerous, like the sudden fury of Hitchcock's bloodthirsty birds. They regard the "angry liberals" as a menace to the Republic and to themselves.

Warnings about this disturbing phenomenon are often published in the pages of the New York Times. On Nov. 12, for example, Nicholas Kristof fretted, "Liberals have now become as intemperate as conservatives, and the result -- everybody shouting at everybody else -- corrodes the body politic and is counterproductive for Democrats themselves."

On this topic, Mr. Kristof's views are indistinguishable from those of his neighbor, David Brooks. A neoconservative who arrived at the Times several months ago, Mr. Brooks worries these days about the "war that poisons our airwaves, clogs up our best-seller lists and stagnates our politics."

Nor are the Times columnists alone in discerning an ominous aspect to liberalism unleashed. Byron York, a writer for the National Review, has done pioneering work to expose this threat. Mr. York has investigated the troubling phenomenon of left-wing "Bush hatred," which he has detected on numerous Internet sites and at least once on the letters page of Vanity Fair magazine. He is badly shocked to learn that anyone would heap contempt and calumny upon the president of the United States.

Similar injured innocence is on display these days in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, where Dorothy Rabinowitz complained in October about the "unremittingly strident display of Bush hatred" by Democratic presidential candidates at a debate in Detroit that put almost everyone else to sleep. She neglected to quote any of the hateful rhetoric, presumably because it was just too awful to commit to print.

And in the Boston Globe, Ellen Goodman bemoans the quality of our debate because the left "seems to have found its inner anger." To see her fellow liberals standing their ground against the right frightens Ms. Goodman; she observes apprehensively as "the contenders in this food fight now stand on either side of a great political divide hurling opinions at each other."

It all sounds unbearably unpleasant. But is this a cultural crisis, or mere melodrama?

As a journalist, columnist and author of two books about contemporary conservatism, I have hurled a few opinions myself. In fact, writers who decry the progressive offensive occasionally cite my work as an unhealthy example (although not often enough). Hearing such complaints about our degraded political debate, what strikes me is their extreme tardiness, after decades of increasingly shrill assault from the right on liberals and Democrats.

During those years, and in particular during the Clinton era, accusations of immorality, criminality and even treason became so commonplace in Republican discourse that hardly anyone bothered to protest. Where were the righteous critics when their pleas for civility might have mattered?

Mostly they were working for publications -- the American Spectator, the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal, among others -- that specialized in smearing political adversaries, with particular emphasis on all persons associated with the Clinton administration. They lack the credentials to bleat piteously about Bush-bashing and unbridled partisanship.

Mr. Kristof acknowledges this absurd hypocrisy, but nevertheless advises liberals to mind their manners. He refrains, however, from urging better behavior on Tom DeLay, Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh, and seems to believe that unilateral liberal disarmament will heal the nation's wounds.

But if Mr. Kristof needs evidence of the liberal offensive's salutary effects, he should glance over at his newest op-ed colleague. Once an enthusiastic lieutenant in the ferocious, take-no-prisoners ideological army of Rupert Murdoch, Mr. Brooks now seeks a truce.

Someday, when he demands that his old comrades curb their habit of vilification, it may even be possible to take him seriously.

Joe Conason writes a weekly column on politics for the New York Observer. His most recent book is: The Hunting of the President: the Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton. Public Eye, which usually runs in this space, will return next week.

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