Politics is an art often defined by word-craft. Words and turns of phrase that are otherwise benign become infused with polemical potency in the hands of office seekers. Rhetorical prowess is both sword and plowshare in the hands of the adept political animal.

Politics is an art often defined by word-craft. Words and turns of phrase that are otherwise benign become infused with polemical potency in the hands of office seekers. Rhetorical prowess is both sword and plowshare in the hands of the adept political animal.

Nowhere do we see this more clearly in the latest term to be vilified by the extreme right-wing of American politics: moderate. Having successfully demonized the idea of liberalism, conservatives are now engaged in an attack on so-called “moderates.” While this new strain of litmus test politics is absurd, it is also proving to be effective. The great irony of trying to lock all politicians into a single file line behind a unitary concept can be found throughout the history of Southern politics.

Following the American Civil War, the party of Lincoln found little purchase in the South. What emerged became known as the “Solid South,” a dense block of immutable Democratic politics. In short, everybody who wanted to run for office — be they dog catcher or senator — was a Democrat. Of course the culling started over what kind of Democrat a person happened to be.

No matter their particular politics, all seekers claimed to be Democrats, at least until Winthrop Rockefeller upset Arkansas’ democratic apple cart here in the late 1960s. This pattern in another rhetorical guise has now focused on moderates.

We recently saw ample evidence of this in state Republican primaries. As reported by the Arkansas News Bureau, two sitting state legislators and one former lawmaker attributed their losses in Republican primary races because they were perceived as moderates in a political climate in which moderation is increasingly viewed as no virtue.

Former Rep. Rick Green of Van Buren, Sen. Bill Pritchard of Ekins and Rep. Tim Summers of Bentonville lost to opponents who demonized them over past votes for tax increases and questioned their conservative bona fides.

Green and Summers were attacked not only by their primary opponents but also by the national group Americans for Prosperity, which targeted them after they refused to sign a pledge not to raise taxes if elected. Pritchard signed the pledge.

“I was actually running against both (Bart) Hester and Americans for Prosperity. I had two opponents,” Summers said.

Green and Summers said they had no regrets about refusing to sign the pledge. Even in defeat, they should have no regrets about not signing. As former Pres. George H. W. Bush can well-attest, whenever we dare someone to “read our lips,” we sow the seeds of our own destruction; and while Green and Summers now have their own wounds to lick, they can do so with a clean conscience.

Buttressed by electoral successes like Green and Summers’ defeat, these “no new tax” pledges have become fashionable in some circles. They are the aforementioned litmus test of certain alleged ideals. They are also the pride that goeth before the fall.

Signing a no new tax pledge may be done as an appeal to conservatism, but ultimately it is more an appeal to demagoguery than ethical governance. It is simultaneously trite rhetoric masquerading as political principle and the Gordian Knot of public policy. Signatories may crow about their pledge, but it robs them of a powerful and regrettably necessary tool in addressing governmental realities. By signing these pledges, politicians state that they will never raise taxes, even at the expense of needed public programs, infrastructural deficits and the requirements of mature governance.

The politicians who sign these pledges are not unlike petulant children holding their breath until they get their way. Unfortunately, it’s the state or nation that passes out when they don’t get it.