Yet these days, the intelligent left is dumbing down and showing signs of slipping into a similar cesspool of outraged incoherence. It's debasing and marginalizing itself by marshaling epithets rather than arguments.
President Bush is criticized not just for catastrophically frittering away our budget surplus or for rushing us into a mess in Iraq. Rather, Citizens for Legitimate Government put it this way in its e-mail newsletter: "We have an Idiot Usurping Lying Weasel for a President."
Close your eyes, and it sounds just like Rush Limbaugh.
The latest leftist silliness is the suggestion that Senator Paul Wellstone was assassinated. Liberal Web sites are suggesting such a conspiracy. Sample headlines: "Wellstone Murdered? Last Politician Similarly Killed Was Running Against John Ashcroft"; "They Shoot Leftists, Don't They?"; and "Most Liberal D-Sen. Wellstone Plane Shot Down."
The White House team that executed Vincent Foster must have struck again.
When my columns criticize the Bushies, I get torrents of e-mails cheering me on, but in terms so strident that they appall me. After I noted that Vice President Dick Cheney, while at Halliburton, did millions of dollars' worth of business with Iraq, a reader wrote: "Dick Cheney is a maggot feeding on the decaying flesh of human misery."
Then there's the singer Harry Belafonte, who last month denounced Colin Powell as a house slave.
Election Day seems a good moment to reflect on this kind of incivility. Of course it's not new: The Connecticut Courant warned in 1800 that Thomas Jefferson's election would mean that "murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced."
Still, in recent years public debate seems to have become particularly vituperative. One reason for the rancor may be that people of all political stripes once got their news from relatively neutral newspaper articles or network news broadcasts. Now conservatives mainline on Bill O'Reilly and get their Hillary Horror updates from e-mail networks. Liberals go to their Web sites to trade their own half-truths. All this means that liberals and conservatives alike can find catered news that does not challenge their prejudices but rather reinforces them.
It's true that Democratic politicians like Tom Daschle haven't joined the conspiratorial hysteria, but that's because they're ducking controversial issues and are frightened of offending centrists. Al Gore's speech last month on the economy blasted the administration without offering a single specific suggestion of what should be done.
The venom of political discourse and this ghetto-ization of information is sadly reminiscent of European class politics. Traditionally in England, for example, conservatives found their views confirmed each morning in The Telegraph, while liberals read The Guardian for evidence of their own sagacity. Each side was convinced that the other was not just wrong but also mad and immoral.
England has reduced that polarization recently, just as the U.S. seems to be trying to replicate it.
The vitriol is bad for the country, by turning every policy fight into a zero-sum game, and it's also counterproductive. A Minnesota poll shows that nearly one-quarter of voters are less likely to vote Democratic in the Senate race because of the bitterly politicized Wellstone memorial service.
Then there's Iraq. I'm afraid that President Bush is making a historic mistake by pushing obsessively to invade that country. But it doesn't follow that he's necessarily stupid or venal.
One can disagree with the calls for war, as I do, but liberals discredit themselves when they claim that the only reasons Mr. Bush could be planning an invasion are finishing Daddy's work, helping his oil buddies or diverting voters from corporate scandals. If we're to convince Americans of the perils of invasion, it'll be by citing arguments rather than epithets.
More broadly, the tendency of liberals to underestimate Mr. Bush as a nitwit boy king helped put him in the White House. And unless liberals belatedly acknowledge that he is more than an "Idiot Usurping Lying Weasel," they will keep him there.