After a depressing week — a horrible shooting that killed six people and wounded 14 others, followed by days of demagoguery and idiocy surpassing even the normal standards of our power-without-responsibility punditocracy — recent days have brought encouraging news.
The medical prognosis of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords seems more hopeful than had been thought likely. And the American people have once again demonstrated their good sense in the face of efforts by the media to stampede them toward foolishness.
Consider, for example, this Jan. 14 story: "Saturday’s shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in which six people were killed, could not have been prevented, 40 percent of American voters say in a Quinnipiac University national poll. Another 23 percent blame the mental health system, while 15 percent say it was due to heated political rhetoric and 9 percent attribute the tragedy to lax gun control."
So a plurality of Americans thinks the tragedy could not have been prevented. And of those who do believe something could have been done, more Americans focus on mental health than on political rhetoric.
This agrees with the findings of an earlier survey: "Most Americans reject the idea that inflammatory political language by conservatives should be part of the debate about the forces behind the Arizona shooting that left six people dead and a congresswoman in critical condition, a USA Today/Gallup Poll finds. A 53 percent majority of those surveyed call that analysis mostly an attempt to use the tragedy to make conservatives look bad. About a third, 35 percent, say it is a legitimate point about how dangerous language can be."
Indeed, the good sense of the American people is further suggested by this fact. They are able to hold two complementary ideas in their heads at once. Americans are concerned about heated rhetoric — not an unreasonable concern — and a slight majority say political rhetoric might drive unstable people to violence, as it very well might. But Americans refuse to ascribe responsibility for an act of violence to political rhetoric when in fact the two are unrelated, as was the case in Tucson, Ariz. And they are fair-minded in judging who is most guilty of such speech. In the Quinnipiac poll, Americans, by 36 to 32 percent, said liberals rather than conservatives are more responsible for overly heated rhetoric.
So we are lucky to have the public we have — both by comparison with other publics around the world and by comparison with so many of our elites. Now if only our leaders could live up to the American people’s high standard of decency and common sense.
We are happy to report President Barack Obama made a start:
"If, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy — it did not — but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud."
The words "it did not" were not in the prepared text. They were apparently added on delivery by Obama.
And now, while holding in our thoughts and prayers the fallen and the wounded, and their families, conservatives can civilly and honestly take the lead in facing up to the challenges of our nation, as Obama has called on us to do.
William Kristol is the editor of The Weekly Standard, where this article appeared.