It's a strength of modern political culture that these apocalyptic metaphors no longer rouse people to armed insurrection. But then indignation has never had so many recreational outlets before. We can spend all our waking hours listening to broadcast political invective or writing sarcastic blog comments to excoriate the morons on the other side. That's the dirty little secret of political vituperation: left and right, we all enjoy going there sometimes.
But even if these violent reveries are almost never acted out, they coarsen the debate and dehumanize the other side. The scenarios behind those fantasies goes a long way toward creating the so-called climate of hate. If you're going to imagine yourself riding to the rescue of the republic, you're going to need to see your opponents as nefarious alien life forms. You put on a cowboy suit, and suddenly everybody else is an Indian.
As Nunberg notes, over the centuries a considerable amount of real violence has been sublimated into angry political conversation. Not only is it better to yell at than shoot each other, doing the former probably helps keep us from doing the latter. Palin's critics were seeing it the other way around.
And while I'd certainly enjoy more civility in political discourse, I wonder how practical that desire is in any system based on regularly scheduled, honest elections. Republicans wouldn't get very far mounting a challenge to President Obama by saying that while he's doing pretty well under the circumstances, they deserve a chance, too. It's hard to run against an incumbent without saying that all is lost if she continues in office; and it's hard to make that almost-always-incorrect accusation without doing a certain amount of rhetorical violence.
The alternative is to have elections only when we really need them. Anyone interested?