Last Friday, one of the guests preceding my segment on MSNBC's Hardball was a then-little known Congresswoman from Minnesota named Michele Bachmann.
She's not little known now.
Bachmann said of Barack Obama, "I'm very concerned that he may have anti-American views." She then called on the media to "take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America?"
I've heard a lot of toxic words in my time as Editor of The Nation. The magazine and its editors have been called un-American, unpatriotic, America- haters, and worse. But Bachmann's name-calling, and brazen channeling of Joe McCarthy made me angry. Really angry. When Matthews turned to me for my response I told him exactly what I was feeling, "Chris, I fear for my country.... This is a politics, at a moment of extreme economic pain in this country, that is incendiary, that is so debased that I'm kind of almost having a hard time breathing, because I think it's very scary, because this is a country I love."
I said what I believed, nothing more. Bachmann's over-the-top baiting angered many Americans who've had it with the fearmongering and division that has characterized our politics for too long. That emotion poured forth in e-mails which I was extremely moved to receive from so many people - across the country - who wanted to tell me that they shared my views and were grateful that I had expressed the fear and outrage they feel about this kind of poisonous politics. Here are some excerpts from those notes:
Paul in California wrote: "...You make me proud to be an American. Keep it up, we are with you." And from Autumn in Kansas: "Thank you Katrina, for sticking up for all of us out there that might be perceived as 'anti-American' by the likes of Rep. Bachmann." Jan in Arizona: "That took guts. We know how upset you were and want to support you.... So just a note of thanks." And from Brad in Chicago: "Thank you for sounding the alarm bell, and for speaking for us all."
Since then, the backlash to Bachmann's (and McCain-Palin's) politics of fear and loathing and demonization, division and distraction is reason for hope, and it also looks as though it might lead to this right-wing ideologue's well-deserved defeat in November.
Bachmann's challenger, Democrat Elwyn Tinklenberg, has raised $1.3 million from approximately 20,000 people since Bachmann gave voice to her politics of (self) destruction. According to the Washington Post, he has quadrupled his television advertising, the Cook Political Report now calls the race a "tossup," and Bachmann's Republican primary foe has decided to conduct a write-in campaign. (Support Tinklenberg however you can and make sure Bachmann is forced out of the People's House.)
The netroots wasted no time in exposing Bachmann's ugly extremism. Within a day, a video posted on YouTube of Bachmann's comments (and my response) had over 87,000 hits. Over 55,000 people have signed a petition calling on Congress to censure Bachmann. Americans United for Change launched IamProAmerica.com in response to both Bachmann's vitriol and Sarah Palin's stumping about "pro-America areas" of our nation.
People on both sides of the aisle have spoken out against Bachmann. On Sunday, following an appearance on Meet the Press, Colin Powell told reporters, "This business, for example, we've got a congressman from Minnesota who's going around saying, 'Let's examine all congressmen to see who is pro-America and whose not pro-America.' We have got to stop this kind of nonsense, pull ourselves together, and remember that our great strength is in our unity and our diversity."
The six Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) members of Minnesota's congressional delegation - Senator Amy Klobuchar, and Representatives Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, James Oberstar, Collin Peterson, and Tim Walz - issued a joint statement: "... All Members of Congress - Democrats and Republicans - swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and for Michele Bachmann to question their loyalty is outrageous. We pride ourselves in Minnesota on our clean and civil elections, but Michele Bachmann's comments run entirely counter to that tradition. All Americans, regardless of their political beliefs, should reject these kinds of divisive, inappropriate and unacceptable comments."
But the chair of the DFL, Brian Melendez, also spoke of the "deafening silence" of Minnesota Republicans who failed to speak out against Bachmann's comments. He said, "...In the wake of Bachmann's call for witch hunts, I... denounce the silence of the Republicans who are part of, or who are running to join, Minnesota's congressional delegation. Senator Norm Coleman and Representative John Kline, along with candidates Erik Paulsen and Brian Davis, have all been shockingly silent."
As for Bachmann, she has been flailing for her political life ever since that Hardball appearance. On Monday she denied everything: "I did not question Barack Obama's patriotism, I did not say he was anti-American." On Tuesday at a Rotary Club luncheon she insisted, "Nor did I call for an investigation of members of Congress for their pro-American or anti-American views." (Check out the Hardball transcript and judge for yourself.) Later that day, speaking with the St. Cloud Times editorial board she admitted, "I should not have used that phrase [un-American]." But she also blamed her words on "a trap" that she alleged was set by Matthews. Finally, yesterday, she seemed to be taking no responsibility whatsoever for the views she expressed, writing in a fundraising pitch in a conservative online newsletter: "Chris Matthews did what Chris Matthews is paid big bucks to do: Twist my words and set them up for full-fledged distortion when his next guest came on. And, when the liberal blogs got hold of little clips of my appearance, the spin machine really kicked into overdrive.... They're motivated entirely by their hatred of me and my conservative beliefs.... Click here to let Chris know you play hardball, too!"
Yesterday, however, might have brought the final nail in Bachmann's political coffin -sources said that the National Republican Campaign Committee is pulling its funding out of her race. Today she finds herself on the front-page of the Los Angeles Times with a story on her "million dollar mistake."
Maybe - just maybe - we've reached a tipping point... a time when people seek real attention to the real and large issues impacting their lives, and say enough with the smears via robocalls, the venom stoking the basest political passions in our society. Bachmann was exposed, but there is still anger and division out there, and we need to take care not to fuel that fire if we're going to preserve our best democratic traditions.