When is it fair to say that some political battles aren't just disagreements over policy, but actually represent a struggle between 'good' and 'evil' points of view? And when, if ever, is it helpful to say so?
There are those on the Right who debase the currency of that four-letter word - "evil" - by using it against anyone who disagrees with them. But what word do you apply to people who deny food to hungry families, voting rights to minorities, or a chance for self-advancement to hard-working students from lower-income homes?
How do you fight the hateful without succumbing to hate?
Politics was once a collegial craft in this country. They called it the "art of compromise," and policy disagreements were handled without resorting to wholesale condemnation of one's opponents.
Unfortunately, the Republican leadership in Washington DC has pretty much abandoned that practice. They're also making hard not to respond in kind, since they keep on committing one reprehensible act after another.
In fact, that could be the new Republican Party's motto: one reprehensible act after another.
Note that we're speaking of the Republican Party's leaders, not its voters. Polls have shown that registered Republicans are a very different breed from the party's leadership. By large majorities, they want to preserve and strengthen Social Security. They support Medicare. GOP voters even supported a "public option" for healthcare and additional taxes on millionaires, if only by slim margins.
Sure, the Republican rank-and-file includes people who hold some pretty reprehensible ideas - about society, minorities, the poor, and women. But it also includes many people whose ideals, and whose beliefs about the nature of freedom, lead them to embrace political positions which many of us reject. That doesn't make them any less idealistic.
Party leaders, on the other hand, seems to hold no principles except self-interest. They've reversed themselves on core principles of individual liberty, states' rights, and privacy whenever it suits them. The only common thread has been their own power and the interests of their major funders.
Their track record is remarkably despicable. And just this week they make that record worse, by voting to take food from the mouths of hungry children.
Countdown to Starvation
First Republicans tried to cut $20 billion from the food stamp program. When that didn't work, they decided to try again - and doubled the figure to $40 billion. Who would that hurt? Government data tells us about the human beings who rely on "SNAP" assistance (its official name):
A record number of people - 47,661,353 Americans - are receiving food stamps this year.
SNAP's benefits are extremely modest. The average person receives $133.29 per month. That's $4.38 per day.
We should be doing more, not less, to help them.
In another cruel twist, Republicans also want to set a strict time limit of 90 days for SNAP assistance- supposedly to force recipients to find work. But most food stamp families - 62 percent- already have a working adult in the home. The GOP is also refusing to raise the minimum wage, which means that figure will only get worse.
What's more, the notion that it takes three months to "find work" in this economy is a cruel hoax. More than 80 percent of food stamp homes include someone who has worked in the last year. But the GOP is fighting employment programs and cutting government jobs.
Instead of good work at good pay, all the Republicans is a 90-day countdown to starvation.
And yet Republican Rep. Marlin Stutzman said, presumably with a straight face, that "Most people will agree that if you are an able bodied adult without any kids you should find your way off food stamps."
Why act and speak so despicably? Some members of Congress don't understand what they're doing. (It's surprising to meet with Representatives and learn how little information they've sometimes have about even the most important isues.)
In addition, many (if not most) Republican politicos hold a reflexive hatred for all government. And all of them know where their party's corporate and billionaire backers stand on these issues. Sometimes that's all the information they need.
Congressional Republicans passed a budget which included draconian cuts to most major government programs, and made those cuts worse by including increases to defense spending - increases which further enrich the defense contractors financing their campaigns.
They used previously routine budget votes to repeatedly hold the Federal government hostage. They did a dubious deal with the President to create the "sequester" - a kind of fiscal "doomsday machine" - and seem to have pulled a fast one: They pretended its cuts were unacceptable to them, but now seem quite willing to let them stand - or to demand Social Security and Medicare cuts in return for lifting them.
There's more than enough reason to fear that the President, who included Social Security cuts in his own budget, might be willing to collaborate rather than fight - a move which would be unpopular, unwise, unkind, and unnecessary.
Why unnecessary? Because Republicans are folding on the sequester. When confronted with the impact of cuts mandated in their own budget - in this case, to transportation and community block grants - many of them backed down this week. Fortunately for the rest of us, they couldn't face the political heat.
On the Senate side, Republicans turned the filibuster and other procedural rules from rarely-invoked options into routinely deployed paralyzing maneuvers. Republicans under Mitch McConnell have transformed the Senate from a collegial body into an armed camp, and effectively changed it from a body which employs majority rule into one in which a minority can block any piece of legislation.
(Astonishingly, Democrats allowed this to happen without fighting back, and even now their opposition is scattered and weak.)
More Hateful Deeds
What else has the GOP wrought?
Massive lying and deception - see "death panels" and suggestions that the President is a "socialist." (Too bad he isn't half the "socialist" that Republican Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were.)
A theocratic power grab, with hateful rhetoric toward people with different beliefs - especially Muslims.
Suppressing the civil liberties of women, African Americans, religious and ethnic minorities, and gays.
Undermining democracy by deliberately disenfranchising poor and minority voters; and, perhaps most gravely for humanity's future,
Denying the reality of climate change, despite overwhelming and conclusive scientific evidence.
Party leaders have lavished tax cuts on millionaires, billionaires, and corporations, while hammering the middle class. The Wall Street deregulation they promoted (with the collusion of 'centrist' Democrats) led to the financial crisis of 2008, which was almost a coup de grace for the American Dream. Now they're determined to finish the job.
These aren't aberrations. This is the GOP.
The Rageful Rich
Which gets us back to our original question: At what point is it reasonable or productive to suggest that we're dealing with bad people?
The answer may be "Never." After all, saying it won't change their minds. Very few people believe that they're "bad." The GOP and its backers are no exception.
It's worth taking another look at Mitt Romney's "47 percent" video. What's really disturbing about that video is the authenticity of Romney's rage, and that of his listeners. Their shameful behavior is made possible by their genuine belief - however deluded - that the people they're hurting somehow deserve to be hurt.
The truth is, our words aren't likely to change their minds no matter what we say. So where does that leave us?
What's love got to do with it?
It was inspiring to watch civil rights leader turned Congressman John Lewis talk with Bill Moyers recently. Speaking of the bombers who murdered little girls in a Birmingham Sunday School, Rep. Lewis said: "They must be loved ... We must have the ability to forgive." And he quoted Martin Luther King, Jr:"
We have to love the hell out of everybody ... It's a better way ... I made up my mind to love because hate is too heavy a burden to bear."
Lewis told a story:
"One of the people that beat me on the Freedom Ride in 1961 ... came to my office later with his son ... And he said, 'Mr. Lewis, I'm one of the people that beat you and left you bloody. Will you forgive me? I want to apologize.' His son started crying. He started crying. I started crying. He hugged me. I hugged him. He called me brother. I called him brother."
John Lewis is a better human being than many of us. But he and Dr. King lay out a road worth following, even for those of us who lag far behind.
Note, however, that Dr. King and Rep. Lewis said "forgive." They didn't say "forget." They didn't ask us to accept the unacceptable, or to pretend that the behavior of their opponents was anything other than immoral.
We have the obligation to judge right from wrong, and to resist what is wrong.
Yes, we also have the moral duty to forgive. But forgiveness can only be granted when the wrongdoing has stopped. And forgiveness has to be sought. Right now the GOP's leaders aren't asking for forgiveness. They're demanding surrender.
Therein lies one of the White House's fundamental errors: We all know that negotiation is necessary. You can even, as in the DC legend of Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Tip O'Neill, "have a beer afterwards."
But it's wrong to pretend that an immoral set of actions is moral just to expedite those negotiations, or to heighten your own political profile. That kind of pretense has a corrosive effect - on our political dialogue, our social values, and our national soul.
Breaking the Spell
Aside from the rare Hitler, we don't have the right to condemn other human beings in their totality. But we must be unhesitating and unsparing in our criticism of that which we believe to be wrong. That means speaking to the actions of our opponents, not their hearts.
It's a mistake to reflexively reject everything our opponents do, especially because we'll miss opportunities to work together. Personally, I think Sen. Rand Paul's positions on drone warfare and the NSA are motivated by idealism, and are far more ethical than that of many Democrats. That opens up the possibility of new alliances on certain issues.
It's true that, by and large, Republicans policies do terrible things to a lot of innocent people. We need leaders who'll fight those policies wholeheartedly, not ones who indulge in false equivalency or pretend to be "above left and right" out of self-interest.
The GOP's policies are horrifying. But the word "evil" is like a dangerous spell that can turn on the one who uses it. It can quickly turn righteous anger into inchoate rage, which makes a person less effective and occludes moral clarity.
In case you doubt that, just look at what it's done to the conservatives who use it so freely.
We'll need to find the strength to fight immoral behavior with all the strength at our command. But we'll need to do it without succumbing to hate. Because, in the end, the question isn't about who they are.
It's about who we are.