Reaction to the horrific Arizona shootings, where six people were slaughtered including a 9-year-old girl, quickly congealed along clear-cut lines:

a) The left blamed the right, pointing to violent imagery and language from Sarah Palin to the Tea Party.
b) The right furiously denied blame, with some trying to pin the shooting on the left.
c) Among public officials, pundits and press, the common impulse was to draw the typical false equivalence between rhetoric on the right and left.

At least one person was not buying it:

“When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And, unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” – Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik

Dupnik added:

“We need to do some soul searching … It’s the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business. People tend to pooh-pooh this business about the vitriol that inflames American public opinion by the people who make a living off of that. That may be free speech but it’s not without consequences.”

We do not yet know whether the Arizona massacre was directly fueled by rightwing rhetoric. But we do know this: one of the most dangerous myths promulgated by the media and political establishment is that there is a comparable level of extremism among conservatives and liberals, that left and right are mirror images.

Even the most cursory perusal of rightwing radio, television, blogs and assorted punditry illustrates a profound distinction: in large measure, the right’s overarching purpose is to stoke hatred of the left, of liberalism. The right’s messaging infrastructure, meticulously constructed and refined over decades, promotes an image of liberals as traitors and America-haters, unworthy of their country and bent on destroying it. There is simply no comparable propaganda effort on the left.

The imbalance is stark: Democrats and liberals rail against the right’s ideas; the right rails against the left’s very existence.

The result is an atmosphere where bigotry thrives, where science and reason are under assault, where progress (associated with progressivism) is frowned upon. And it’s an atmosphere where violence becomes more likely. Pretending this is not the case is to enable it.

The deeply-etched themes that run through American politics reflect the right’s successful framing: Democrats and liberals are wimps, Republicans and conservatives are gun-toting patriots; Democrats and liberals despise their country, Republicans and conservatives are the only ones willing to protect it; Democrats and liberals want to intrude on your freedom, tax you and bankrupt the nation, Republicans and conservatives want to give you freedom, liberty and wealth. The current of eliminationism infusing the right’s worldview is an inevitable outcome of such contorted impressions – it’s a natural impulse to want to destroy that which is (supposedly) destroying you.

Those who foist the false right/left equivalency ignore this reality. Their definition of extremism is necessarily warped, since they have to stretch logic to fabricate a sense of balance. If you want single-payer health care, you’re a liberal extremist, but if you deny global warming, you’re simply a conservative skeptic. As the national discourse moves further and further right, only the most unhinged rightwingers are tagged as extreme, while all it takes for a liberal to be labeled an extremist is to espouse a policy position that is out of the mainstream. That is not to say there are not violent individuals and extremists on the left, but that it is absurd to argue that left and right are comparable in the language of violence and incitement.

When center becomes right and right becomes far right, conservatives can get away with wilder and weirder behavior. Exhortations from radio blatherers to bash liberals are dismissed as “entertainment.” Glenn Beck’s bizarre rantings barely get a yawn.

This has been a long time coming and culpability lies not just with the haters but with those in the media and Democratic establishment who refuse to confront the hate-mongering when they see it. Here’s something I wrote about Ann Coulter in 2006.  It sums up everything I want to say about the ongoing demonization of the left and the resulting potential for violence:

NBC, a major U.S. media outlet, has given Coulter extended play in recent days. They have knowingly given a public forum to a woman who slandered 9/11 widows and who is now on the record identifying John Murtha, a U.S. Congressman, a Marine, as an ideal target for murder. Anybody who watched Ann Coulter’s June 14th appearance on the Tonight Show had to realize that it was a watershed moment in the war between the establishment media and the progressive netroots. It was also a signal to Democrats that liberal ideology can be denigrated with impunity. Had the words “Jew” or “Christian” or “Conservative” been substituted for “Liberal” we’d be waking up to a national scandal.

Never mind that Jay Leno and George Carlin sat like trembling lambs while Coulter spewed gutter-level invective at millions of Americans – we’ve already seen the same obsequiousness from Larry King, Matt Lauer (who ended his faux-debate with Coulter by saying “always fun to have you”) and others. The larger issue here is that despite an uproar from the progressive netroots, NBC saw fit to give Coulter a platform to continue her liberal-scapegoating and to slander women who lost their husbands on 9/11.

It’s hard to deny that Coulter’s words border on incitement. What she says is neither amusing nor smart nor humorous nor factual nor worthy of airing on a major media outlet. It treats a substantial segment of the population as sub-human, as creatures deserving of public scorn and worse (She said Jesus would say that “we are called upon to do battle” on liberalism). Careful not to violate Godwin’s Law, I’ll refrain from the obvious comparisons, but what we’re dealing with here is a dangerous inflection point in American politics. When this kind of opprobrium is peddled by major media outlets, it’s high time that the Democratic establishment and the larger progressive community understand that this is a make-or-break showdown with the media.

Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and their ilk have made an industry out of liberal-bashing. Coulter fits in perfectly with those hate-traffickers. And contrary to the false Michael Moore comparisons made by Leno and others, there is no progressive counterpart to these people on the national stage. The basic thrust of the left’s critique is that George W. Bush and his administration are bad for America. It is in our tradition for citizens to defend the Constitution and to question the actions of their elected leaders. Rightwingers may characterize it as Bush Derangement Syndrome, but the progressive community, for the most part, is going after government corruption and lies, not vilifying an entire group of Americans as Bin Laden-loving traitors.

Nearly five years after I wrote that, only one thing has changed: the problem has gotten worse.

UPDATE: An essential post from Melissa McEwan:

This is not an argument there is no hatred, no inappropriate and even violent rhetoric, among US leftists. There is. This is evidence that, although violent rhetoric exists among US leftists, it is not remotely on the same scale, and, more importantly, not an institutionally endorsed tactic, as it is among US rightwingers.

This is a fact. It is not debatable.

And there is observably precious little integrity among conservatives in addressing this fact, in the wake of the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

And as long as we continue to play this foolish game of “both sides are just as bad,” and rely on trusty old ablism to dismiss Jared Lee Loughner as a crackpot—dutifully ignoring that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators; carefully pretending that the existence of people with mental illness who are potentially dangerous somehow absolves us of responsibility for violent rhetoric, as opposed to serving to underline precisely why it’s irresponsible—it will be inevitable again.