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The Republican assault on "political hate speech"

By Brendan Nyhan
November 13, 2003

Over the last two months, the Republican Party has begun a systematic effort to label attacks on President Bush by Democratic presidential candidates as "political hate speech," a new piece of political jargon intended to delegitimize criticism of Bush. It appears this strategy will expanded in the coming months -- a recent memo from Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie urged party officials to adopt the term in their rhetoric.

Like "Enronomics" and "Daschlenomics", "political hate speech" is a carefully crafted term designed to create a hazy, non-logical association between two concepts. In this case, the phrase associates criticism of the president with "hate speech," which generally refers to speech that attacks others on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Of course, some rhetoric directed toward President Bush could fairly be described as hateful (just like any politician), but Republicans have used the term sweepingly to try to delegitimize nearly all criticism of Bush, regardless of its substance. This is a key tactic of political jargon, which often seeks to undermine the legitimacy of criticism by invoking hazy but powerful emotional symbols.

In addition, the phrase reverses the term "hate speech" by directing it back at liberals (another classic jargon tactic), who are associated with the term due to speech codes proscribing "hate speech" at certain colleges and universities. The use of the term "political hate speech" against Democrats thereby imparts an implicit, largely non-rational accusation of hypocrisy, even though no evidence is provided that the candidates in question support prohibitions on hate speech.

Attacks on liberals for "hate speech" have occurred before, most prominently in Bernard Goldberg's book Bias, which lists twelve alleged instances of "liberal hate speech" documented by the Media Research Center, many of which would not meet any fair-minded definition of the term. However, the RNC has recently made the term "political hate speech" central to its attacks on Democratic presidential candidates, repeating it over and over in statements, interviews and press releases. Gillespie's memo to RNC members and party officials, as quoted by ABC's newsletter The Note, instructs Republicans to "Highlight the party of political hate speech ... The presidential candidates have now called President Bush a 'miserable failure,' a 'liar,' compared him to a 'gang leader' and to Saddam Hussein himself. Americans instinctively know that anyone who's willing to demean the presidency in order to gain it is not worthy of having it entrusted to him."

Gillespie originally debuted the term during an appearance with Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sept. 7:

The kind of rhetoric you hear from [Democratic presidential candidates] ... on either side of the aisle, Ronald Reagan never said Jimmy Carter couldn't find countries in his own hemisphere. Walter Mondale never said that President Reagan was a miserable failure. When Bill Clinton ran against President Bush, he didn't compare him to Saddam Hussein or the Taliban. And when Bob Dole ran against President Clinton, he didn't say that he was an absolute phony or a liar. The kind of words we're hearing now from the Democratic candidates go beyond political debate. This is political hate speech.

Gillespie was very explicit in attacking the legitimacy of the Democrats' statements when he said "The kind of words we're hearing now from the Democratic candidates go beyond political debate." Yet he was intentionally vague about what attacks he is condemning. Implicit comparisons to Saddam Hussein or the Taliban are inappropriate and unfair - though far from unprecedented in the post-Sept. 11 political environment - but the other statements are aggressive in the usual manner of partisan politics. (Needless to say, Republicans certainly did not pull their punches during President Clinton's term either.)

After the Democratic debate on Sept. 9, Gillespie was again quoted accusing the Democrats of "political hate speech" and asserted that "These kinds of harsh, bitter personal attacks are unprecedented in the history of presidential politics," an absurd claim given the vitriol of American political history, particularly in the 19th century. (He repeated the "political hate speech" label and the claim that the attacks were unprecedented during a Sept. 22 breakfast with the editors of the Christian Science Monitor.) The RNC press release on the Sept. 9 debate also invoked the phrase, but merely listed a number of statements from the candidates rather than offering an argument about why any of them constitutes "political hate speech."

In an interview with the New York Times on Sept. 10 that was part of the offensive, Gillespie implicitly suggested that Democratic attacks on the president hurt the war on terrorism, again trying to delegitimize their actions. "There is a contrast here," he said. "[W]hile President Bush is attacking the terrorists, the Democrats are attacking President Bush." (Gillespie also used the term on Sept. 16 on Fox News Channel's "The Big Story with John Gibson.")

On October 1, a RNC deputy press secretary, David James, turned the term against former Vermont governor Howard Dean, the frontrunner in the Democratic primary race, saying Dean "has demonstrated he's one of the masters of political hate speech." Like Gillespie, James also claimed the Democratic rhetoric was unprecedented and non-rationally contrasted it with the war on terrorism to try to undermine its legitimacy:

"Howard Dean also said in the Democratic primary debate in New York, 'George Bush is the enemy,'" James said. "The last time I checked, Osama bin Laden was the enemy. I don't think we've heard that sort of rhetoric coming out, at least not on the presidential level."

Three days later, Gillespie was quoted using the term in the Washington Post. On October 8, he then repeated it in on CNBC "Capitol Report" in sweeping form, claiming that "The Democratic field has engaged in political hate speech for the past six months."

By this point, the term was making its way into official RNC documents, including October 8 fact sheets on the California recall and an RNC gala, which both evidently proved that Americans are rejecting "attack politics and political hate speech."

In a Washington Times op-ed published on October 9, Gillespie was quoted trying to frame "political hate speech" as an attack on the institution of the presidency itself: "The attacks have moved beyond political rhetoric and into the realm of political hate speech. No one has ever won the White House by demeaning the presidency." Over the next month, Gillespie used the term frequently to attack Democratic candidates before, during and after debates, beginning with an October 9 press release prior to a debate. On October 24, he even demonstrated his psychic abilities before another debate, predicting that the Democratic candidates "will continue a pattern of political hate speech."

Other uses includes an October 12 Q&A with the Dallas Morning News; an October 21 RNC press release which used the term to attack Democratic opposition to one of Bush's judicial nominees; an October 23 speech by Gillespie in which he again suggested that Democrats are "willing to demean the presidency in order to gain it"; an October 27 briefing of reporters; a second appearance on CNBC "Capitol Report" on October 30; a November 3 RNC press release; and a November 5 news conference featuring Gillespie.

Finally, the most recent use of the term came in a November 10 article in the Des Moines Register, which highlights the way experts can use such jargon. Note the repetition of the phrase twice in three sentences:

"The Democrats are spending more and more on their political hate speech and pessimism and reaching fewer and fewer people," [RNC deputy press secretary David] James said. "It's the constant attacks on President Bush. It's the political hate speech that people are turning off. The president has a positive agenda, and that message is clearly resonating with Americans."

When Democratic presidential candidates cross the line in their rhetoric, they should be held accountable for their statements. But the blanket application of "political hate speech" is being used to undermine the legitimacy of criticism and dissent in principle -- a tactic which disturbingly echoes Bush's "changing the tone" rhetoric from Bush's campaign and early months of his presidency, which implicitly defined a changed tone as the absence of opposition to the President's policies. It is also a direct descendant to the many vitriolic attacks unleashed by Republicans and conservative pundits on those who have questioned Bush or the war on terrorism, including former RNC chair Marc Racicot's attempt to preclude any discussion of replacing Bush earlier this year. When John Kerry, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts and presidential contender, inappropriately compared regime change in Iraq to the 2004 election while the war was still ongoing, Racicot went even further, saying Kerry "crossed a grave line when he dared to suggest the replacement of America's commander-in-chief at a time when America is at war." The term "political hate speech" represents a continuation of these tactics by other means.

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Related links:
-The dissent smackdown (Brendan Nyhan, 1/6/03)
-The patriot patrol strikes again (Bryan Keefer, 8/6/02)
-Axing the tough questions (Brendan Nyhan, 5/21/02)
-Hijacking the issue (Ben Fritz, 5/18/02)
-Bully brigade (Brendan Nyhan, 3/4/02)
-Quieting the homefront (Bryan Keefer, 3/1/02)
-Stifling "axis of evil" dissent (Brendan Nyhan, 2/15/02)
-Using "Changing the Tone" to Suppress Criticism (Brendan Nyhan, 6/4/01)

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