Arthur Herman has a great piece in the New York Post today (free login required).
He recounts the story of Senator McCarthy (after whom McCarthyism is named) – a story I haven't heard before – and proceeds to compare it to the recent treatment by Democrats of Judge Alito in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
Republicans, and the conservative movement, learned a powerful lesson. They would now pay a high price for their rhetorical excess or hysteria, which the media would instantly denounce as "McCarthyism."
GOP attacks on the Truman presidency during the Korean War had been reckless and bitter, much like what today's Democrats hurl at George W. Bush. As American soldiers were dying, McCarthy and his colleagues speculated publicly if top administration officials might be in the pocket of the Kremlin. They dismissed Truman as a stupid, weak stooge addicted to "midnight sessions of bourbon and Benedictine." They smeared Secretary of State Dean Acheson as pro-Soviet, nicknaming him the Red Dean; on the floor of the Senate, Sen. William Jenner even called Gen. George Marshall "a living lie."
THE fall of McCarthy forced conservatives to change their political style. Smearing opponents as "commies" or "pinkos" only backfired. Appealing to racial or anti-Semitic stereotypes told the public more about the accuser than the accused.
The right began policing its own. Conservatives who didn't or couldn't make the adjustment were relegated to the swamps of the John Birch Society - or later, like white supremacist David Duke or evangelist Pat Robertson, instantly denounced. The new attitude was embodied in a new magazine that appeared soon after McCarthy's fall, William F. Buckley's National Review, which taught conservatives that they could gain more through reasoned debate than through conspiracy theories, name-calling, and sleazy innuendo.
Conservatives learned their lesson: The Reagan Revolution would be the result.
But liberals have not learned this lesson. McCarthy's defeat seemed to vindicate their own excesses. Liberals began to label conservatives as closet fascists, embodiments of a primitive and pathological "paranoid style" of politics, while the media applauded.
Over the next decades, while conservatives were reining in the rhetoric, liberals were settling into the habit of attacking every Republican as a crypto-Nazi, a racist, a sexist and a religious bigot — and those who supported them as an ignorant redneck lynch mob.
I find the comparisons striking, and I really hope that the backlash against the Dems is as strong and long-lasting as the term McCarthyism has been. Of course, every silver lining has its cloud – in this case, learning their lesson might result in a more influential and representative version of the DNC. Still, there are things the DNC stands for which are true and right, and which can serve as a good and necessary balance against the goals of the Republican party. Those things have been lost behind the rhetoric and slander of the current liberal left. Having the "real" Democrats back wouldn't be so bad – losing to an honorable opponent is far more palatable than losing to a cheater.
Side note: what does it mean about education in the USA that I had never heard the story of McCarthyism? For years, I thought McCarthyism was a variation of Chicken Little. According to this, it sounds like he was more guilty of wrongly accusing people, and going over-the-top in how he accused them.