Politics

Hot Rhetoric Is OK for Liberals, and for Me

I wrote a book calling Democrats "the party of death." They howled. Now they're saying the same thing about Republican health care.

Strong feelings.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Over the weekend Hillary Clinton tweeted that if Republicans pass the health-care bill, they should be called “the death party.” Senator Bernie Sanders had his own tweet:

Republicans denounced these remarks. Senator Orrin Hatch tweeted in response to Sanders:

My own reaction to the Democrats’ words was to consider calling a copyright attorney about Clinton, since a decade ago I wrote a book about abortion and related issues titled "The Party of Death."

Liberals were outraged by my title then, as conservatives are by Clinton and Sanders now. It seems to me that today’s outrage is, as yesterday’s was, misdirected. A healthy democratic culture would not consider any of this rhetoric out of bounds.

That’s not to deny the understandable and even praiseworthy impulse behind reactions such as Hatch’s. His tweet alluded to the shooting of Republican Representative Steve Scalise, and the widespread reaction that our political debate should exhibit more civility. Indeed it should, less because vicious invective can set off deranged people than because it undermines our ability to deliberate together.

But we should not pursue civility in a way that stops us from speaking important truths. Clinton and Sanders believe—sincerely, I assume—that the Senate Republican health bill will increase the number of people without health insurance, that a significant number of those people will die, and that this likelihood is a strong argument against that bill. I don’t find the argument compelling, for reasons that Ross Douthat and Oren Cass explain, but it’s part of the case against the bill. Liberals can’t reasonably be asked to refrain from making it because it reflects poorly on Republicans.

My book mentioned that the liberal legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin had opened his own book in defense of abortion and euthanasia by calling them, in his very first sentence, “choices for death.” He offered a sophisticated form of the strongest case I believe his side of the argument can make: that some living human beings do not count as “persons” with moral worth, and it can therefore be right for governments to exclude their lives from the protections they extend to everyone else. I argued that these views had become a powerful force in politics that needed to be combated: a party of death, as it were.

You can agree or disagree, of course; a few reviewers took intelligent exception to my arguments. What you can’t reasonably do is ask someone whose entire argument turns on the wrongness of making “choices for death” to refrain from making prominent mention of the d-word. I trust that liberals who are defending (and often amplifying) Clinton and Sanders now will agree that the reaction to my choice of title was silly and evasive.

While the Clinton/Sanders rhetoric seems to me well within the bounds of polite discourse, I also think that my own provocation was more defensible than theirs.

Because I was writing a book rather than a tweet, I could include important caveats to forestall confusion. Thus the first pages of my book acknowledge forthrightly that many millions of people of good will support legal abortion.

My case was much less speculative than theirs. There can’t be much disputing that taxpayer financing for abortion will lead to an increase in abortions, which already number more than a million a year in our country. Clinton and Sanders are making a much more speculative argument, given that, for example, the effect of Obamacare on mortality has been indetectable to the naked eye (see the Douthat and Cass links above for more).

Relatedly, my argument was against a much more direct kind of killing. Intentional abortion always entails the deliberate killing of a living human being. Supporting laws that allow intentional abortion involves the deliberate withholding of the legal protections against deliberate killing that you and I enjoy. The Clinton/Sanders scenarios don’t involve anyone’s intentionally inflicting death on anyone else.

Again, though: The right response to Clinton and Sanders is to explain why their argument is wrong, not to denounce them for having broken some rule of politesse in making it. And in the spirit of open debate, I’ll promise not to call that copyright lawyer.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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