There is a link between the lethal fantasies Edsall outlines in his piece and the more widespread impulse to “merely” ruin the careers and livelihoods of our people we despise. At the edges, partisans are fine with seeing their political opponents physically suffer. It’s far more mainstream to hope to see them financially and socially ruined.
It’s in this atmosphere that I’m increasingly of the view that the vanishing, bipartisan class of civil libertarians represent an important ingredient in the glue that keeps America together. The fundamental idea that we should defend the rights of others that we would like to exercise ourselves often requires that we gain greater sympathetic understanding of our opponents’ points of view. After all, the defense of liberty in the public square can never be merely legalistic. To be effective it also has to humanize.
And crucially, it also has to educate. There is simply no way to enjoy or cultivate a true culture of liberty without tolerating even terrible things. We human beings are messy mixtures of virtue and vice, and while there are vices so profound that they render a person unfit for presence in the public square, we should be very careful indeed before we try to punish a man for his thoughts. How many of history’s greatest artists — of its most interesting thinkers — would pass our modern partisan purity tests?