- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Timelines are for high school textbooks. History itself is all indirection and angles, actions and events caroming off one another, one unintended consequence glancing into the next.
That is what makes forecasting the future so difficult. Our rational minds look for the timeline, the natural next step, even though we know the bolt from the blue or the nudge from nowhere is that much more likely.
A week ago, anyone looking at American politics would have said that the driving forces would surely be the economy or possibly great events in the world, the wars we are fighting or the actions of the enemies we fear. Many would have predicted that the Tea Party movement and the extreme right, led by the likes of Sarah Palin, would play a major role in the 2012 presidential cycle, riding the momentum of their midterm election victories.
Surely as China’s President Hu or France’s President Sarkozy were being briefed for their visits to Washington, their intelligence services did not tell them the political landscape in America might shift dramatically as a consequence of the actions of a lunatic in front of a Safeway supermarket in a Tucson strip mall.
Indeed, even immediately after the tragic attack on Congresswoman Giffords, it was by no means certain that the event would have anything like lasting consequences. Nor was it certain what whatever consequences occurred might be. Nor is it certain now.
But some of the laws that govern the physics of history and politics suggest that once again the irrational, the unexpected, and the unintended are likely to dictate what impact Jared Lee Loughner’s 31 shots might ultimately have. Among those laws are a few that are well known even to casual observers:
- In politics, it is often not the underlying event that produces the consequences, but rather it is the reaction to it. The legacy of Watergate was not so much as a result of the break-in as it was the coverup. How we view Bush’s reaction to 9/11 is not colored so much by his grace immediately afterward as by his subsequent ill-considered zeal to invade Iraq.
- It is not what actually happened that is important but how it is perceived. That means that the context in which an event occurs defines the significance of the event. Katrina was not necessarily caused by climate change, but it came to be a symbol of what global warming might produce nonetheless.
- Defining the narrative is more important to political outcomes than revealing the truth — but meta-messages are less stable than nitroglycerin and can blow up in the hands of those who fail to manage them deftly.
For all these reasons, it now seems likely the events in Tucson will have enduring effects on American politics and by extension global affairs. For example, although Loughner seems to have been your garden-variety deranged lone gunman — dim, smirking, and profoundly ill — he was a spark that set aflame the already smoldering debate about how ugly America’s political discourse had become.
There will be chicken-and-egg debates for a long time to come about whether that was because he was influenced by the culture of hatred, threats, and gun-wielding bravado that has for a long time infected U.S. politics or whether he was a just a catalyst seized upon by political opportunists grasping for any stray event that supported a point they long wanted to make. Both are no doubt true to some extent.
It is impossible to ignore, however, that the attack happened in a part of the country where the discourse had gotten particularly ugly, in a congressional district on which someone had drawn gun sights and to a congresswoman who had made a point of decrying the tenor of the partisan screaming match that had seemingly drowned out any possibility of reasoning together on the American public stage. These factors may have been unrelated, but events and context fuse together as they happen and the bond cannot be undone.
As a result, like it or not, it is already impossible to imagine that failed Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle would this week discuss "Second Amendment solutions" with the glibness she once did even if she condemns, as she does, those who try to make the connection between the attacks and the gunsmith-crafted rhetoric of populist politicians of both parties. For the same reason, it is also unlikely Joe Manchin will again be wielding a rifle in another campaign advertisement anytime soon.
Beyond this seeming and much-to-be-hoped-for shift toward more civility — one that both President Obama and Speaker Boehner have appropriately embraced — events such as this also have individual impacts on different individual politicians based on how they handle themselves.
For this reason, even though six out of ten Americans see no connection between the shootings and hate politics, it seems likely that in the past several days the U.S. politician who has seen their future prospects as a candidate diminish most is Sarah Palin. First, whether by virtue of sad coincidence or not, the fact that she had targeted Congresswoman Giffords among others in her "gun sight" campaign resonated with the public within literally hours of news of the shooting. Palin was put on the defensive.
Today she released a carefully prepared video statement attempting to address the resulting outcry. It was clearly because she recognized that the direction the debate was taking might — rightly or not — ultimately harm and possibly marginalize her brand of politics even with the Republican Party.
Palin’s statement was measured, and she appeared dignified. It even included a comment that would be remarkable if it had not been overshadowed by something else she said: She suggested that we remember how "the events of 9/11 challenged our values and we had to fight the tendency to trade our freedoms for perceived security." What a fascinating and unexpected critique of the overreaction and overreaching of the Bush administration.
That said, Palin also upstaged what was good in her remarks when she made the mistake of calling the attacks on the right a "blood libel." This is a term that is deeply meaningful and painful to Jews who for centuries were unjustly and brutally targeted by anti-Semites with the repellent allegation that they used the blood of Christian children in religious ceremonies. This usage by Palin was instantly inflammatory.
To be fair, Palin is far from alone in making this poor choice of words. She was actually just hopping on a rhetorical bandwagon many on the right, including Glenn Reynolds in the Wall Street Journal, had embraced. Still, the phrase does seem especially inappropriate coming out of the mouth of a politician who has preached the deeply offensive idea that somehow the United States is a Christian nation.
What is more important, however, in a purely political sense is that at a moment when she should have sought to still the waters and promote healing, she did neither. She struggled against the moment and failed to sufficiently acknowledge responsibility for creating not the conditions for the attack, but the tone that so many find so troubling. In so doing, she appeared again to be out of touch with vast swaths of America at an instant that called for statesmanship or at least a decent silence. She seemed to panic politically and in so doing has increased the likelihood that she is one of those politicians who will be a less viable leader in whatever new environment may emerge from these sad events.
She was poised, well-dressed, well-rehearsed, and produced a professional video. But for all that, she ignored or misunderstood the three laws of politics described above. In bungling her attempt to prove she bore no responsibility for the mood leading up to the Tucson attack, she may have increased the likelihood that she ultimately will be one of its most prominent collateral victims.