While I disagree with just about every single thing that was said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. this weekend, I do agree that these types of gatherings are healthy for political movements — they offer a chance to hash out ideas, test new lines of attack, showcase rising stars and provide energy and inspiration to the movement’s followers.
I was excited to be outraged by the ideas of the speakers and indignant at their unfair attacks on President Obama — and I was as happily outraged and indignant as I had expected. But, as I watched conservative icon Governor Sarah Palin speak, I was also filled with disappointment and foreboding.
In the middle of her speech, Palin was interrupted by a group of Occupy protesters attempting to “mic check” her. As with most interrupted speeches, the angry audience turned on the protestors, shouting “USA! USA! USA!” to drown out their protest. From the crowd, this was a perfectly understandable reaction — I find it as annoying as they do when AIDS activists interrupt President Obama or Occupy activists interrupt Republican candidates.
What was both frightening and disappointing, however, was to see Sarah Palin relish in shutting up the protestors. Most often, interrupted politicians just smile politely until security guards clear the protestors, or they argue back about the policy being criticized. Rarely does a speaker actively try to drown out the opposition simply by using a microphone to out-shout them.
Palin, as rogue as ever, hesitated and then decided to follow the mob. “USA! USA! USA!” she began chanting while she waved her fist. And when security had removed the rabble-rousers, she smirked and said to her followers, “See, you just won! You see how easy that is?”
That message is precisely the problem in America today. Politics should not be about winning by drowning out the opposition. Movements should win because their ideas and policies are better and because they are championed with optimism. Being able to silence opposition so easily is not something Palin should be proud of. It is a sad sign that loud voices and clever slogans are more powerful than sound policy and calm thinking. With this degeneration of politics, it’s no wonder Congress has a 15 percent approval rating.
“A mob’s always made up of people, no matter what. Mr. Cunningham was part of a mob last night, but he was still a man,” Harper Lee wrote in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Sarah Palin, in the midst of savoring the dominance of a mob mentality, forgot that political movements are driven by individuals.
Too often, I have dismissed the Tea Party as a bunch of angry, cranky, white kooks — I forget that the members of the Tea Party are not just protestors, but are mothers and fathers. Too often the Republican Party, the party that famously espouses the importance of the individual, forgets that the Occupy Wall Street protestors aren’t just a bunch of commies to be squashed, but are desperate Americans seeking relief.
We can disagree over policy, we can disagree over governing philosophy and we can disagree over moral issues. But everyone of every political stripe should agree that no one benefits when we drown out a minority opinion just because we can.
Sarah Palin is not a disgrace because her policies are dumb, nor because she can’t name a newspaper. She is a disgrace because she preaches the lowest, meanest, basest form of politics.
When Yale students steal from the Occupy New Haven protests, we buy into that politics — we see the protests as nothing more than a big mass of tents, and we forget the individual protestors’ hopes and fears. When we stage a kiss-in to protest homophobic speakers, we reduce ourselves to a loud stunt and discredit the value of our ideas. We all like to say that politics is superficial at best. But that will never change if we wait for politicians like Sarah Palin to realize that politics is no more civil than every individual American’s conduct.
Sam Cohen is a freshman in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.