Shrill Interest Groups Coarsen Political Debate

091205 article wiseguys Shrill Interest Groups Coarsen Political DebateIf at first you don’t succeed, advertise again.

That seems to be the policy of the abortion-rights group, NARAL Pro-Choice America.

The organization landed itself in hot water early last month with a television ad condemning John Roberts, President Bush’s nominee to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

The 30-second spot accused Mr. Roberts of filing court briefs “supporting violent fringe groups” and of holding ideas that led him “to excuse violence against other Americans.”

The claims, based on a very harsh interpretation of arguments made by Mr. Roberts in a Supreme Court case heard in the early 1990’s, were a bit shrill even for some liberal tastes. Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, told The New York Times that the ad was “far too intemperate and far too personal.”

As the controversy intensified, NARAL decided to withdraw the offending advertisement. Within the past two weeks, however, the group has begun running a new anti-Roberts spot, albeit one that is couched in more moderate terms. This time, the voiceover suggests that Mr. Roberts doesn’t believe in the right to privacy and adds, “There is just too much at stake to let John Roberts become a decisive vote on the Supreme Court.” This ad ran before Mr. Bush announced that he wants Mr. Roberts to become Chief Justice.

The group must hope that assertions like these will help to ensure that Mr. Roberts gets a rough ride in his Senate confirmation hearings.

The NARAL saga is unusual in one way: It offers a rare example of an activist organization softening its approach in the face of criticism. But, in a broader sense, it’s typical: It exemplifies how interest groups of all ideological complexions—especially those whose troops man the trenches in the culture wars—coarsen and distort important debates.

Few voices dissent from the view that American politics has become increasingly polarized in recent years. But interest groups have gotten off lightly when it comes to apportioning blame for this state of affairs. In fact, they have played a massive role in driving public discourse toward the extremes and keeping it there.

Conservative organizations like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family have proven especially adept at building—and using—political muscle. Their tactics are clear: They devote enormous energy to sharpening a sense of outrage among potential supporters. In their world, American Christians are besieged by the forces of godlessness.

Last week, for instance, a Focus on the Family Web site carried an article lamenting how “Air Force Religious Regulations Could Silence Christians.” The Web site of another hard-line conservative group, Concerned Women for America, drew its readers’ attention to a forthcoming Girl Scouts national convention that, it was alleged, would “feature pro-abortion, pro-lesbian speakers.” When such “scandals” are highlighted, what self-respecting Christian fundamentalist wouldn’t rally to the flag?

Liberals are no shrinking violets when it comes to making extravagant claims that suit their own purposes. Shortly after the second anti-Roberts ad was released, for example, NARAL president Nancy Keenan told The Times that “freedom is at stake” in the battle over his confirmation. The claim seemed hopelessly melodramatic at best.

These groups are not dangerous merely because they use overblown rhetoric. It is self-evident that they have a vested interest in prolonging and intensifying enmity. Implacable confrontation is their lifeblood.

If their leaders were to acknowledge complexity, or to suggest that the other side may be composed of people who have valid reasons for holding different opinions, or to imply that compromise may be desirable, the effects would be profoundly detrimental to their organizational health.

“From the perspective of groups like these, one needs to establish a raison d’être, and therefore one constantly seeks problems,” said Professor Doug Muzzio of Baruch College’s Center for Innovation and Leadership in Government. “They also need to make those problems seem urgent and big and dramatic.”

Most of these groups are so enraptured by their own dogmatism that they do no more than pay lip service to the need to accommodate different viewpoints. They disdain the careful balancing of competing rights that lies at the heart of real political decision-making.

Thus, the New York branch of the ACLU mouths sentiments about the need for the police to “be aggressive in maintaining security” but launches a lawsuit aimed at stopping relatively innocuous bag searches on the subway system; James Dobson talks about the importance of civility but calls the Senate compromise arrived at by the so-called Gang of 14 “a complete bailout and betrayal.”

These groups, on both sides of the partisan divide, like to portray themselves as being composed of concerned “ordinary” Americans. Many observers regard them as a healthy and rambunctious element in the democratic process.

It’s time to question whether that’s really true. Sometimes it seems as if those who most loudly profess concern about American society are stretching its fabric to breaking point.