Sunday, September 26, 2010

Crazy Politics Is Nothing New

Americans are dreamers. Some dreams, such as the belief in hard work paying off in success, can be useful and can serve to give people hope during hard times. Other dreams, such as the expectation that national politics should be a mild and uncontentious affair, are dangerous because they actually lead people to take actions that undermine republican government itself.

These thoughts come to mind as I reflect on many people's shock at the rise of extremist politicians in our national debates, as well as the increasing rancor between the parties in Washington, D.C. Often, national figures in the media and in politics are asked about this heated partisanship, and usually they respond by treating it as an unfortunate but temporary fact of life. Well, it is a fact of life, and it is unfortunate, but it is not temporary. I think we had better get used to the fact that American politics is going to remain in the gutter.

This is where history demonstrates its importance, and Americans pay the price for having five-minute memories. That's because American history is filled with many more years of contentious, rude, and outrageous political behavior than it is with years of peaceful coexistence among all of the country's varying factions. 

That's what makes the cover story in the September 20, 2010, issue of New York magazine both important and a bit off-base. It's a profile of Jon Stewart and his Daily Show team, going behind the scenes to see how they react to the news, what they think about the media, and what they do. All interesting. The pitch, as you can see on the cover, suggests short memories, however. The small cover text asks about Stewart, "Wasn't the Obama era supposed to make him irrelevant? If only." A good cover line, but it assumes that the Bush era was an anomaly and that people were expecting to return to some mythical golden age of "bi-partisan" "non-confrontational" national politics. If only

From Preston Brooks beating Charles Sumner with his cane on the floor of the Senate, to Grover Cleveland's opponents accusing him during the presidential campaign of having fathered an illegitimate child, American politics has almost always been a bare-knuckled affair. Lies abounded. Voter intimidation was a regular occurrence. The media was partisan and corrupt.

I'm not saying I like that kind of politics; in fact, I think it's destructive and it keeps people from discussing and solving the real problems facing us. I'm just saying that that is what most of our nation's history has been like and will be like.

We were led to believe otherwise because we have had an unusual period of relative political peace. Post-WWII we had two parties that both tried to serve the middle of the spectrum. (Of course, we also had Marxists to put the fear of violence in the minds of the businesses. But when that fear went away, the polarization, the lying, the cheating, the intimidation, the brazen fakery came back.)

What created that unusual period of peace? It was a number of things, all of which were historically ephemeral. The United States defeated its biggest competitors in World War II and then it ran the world. It had unprecedented prosperity in those decades when international markets were opening to our goods (thanks in no small part to the destruction of the British empire, the withdrawal from economic engagement of the Soviet bloc, and the fact that Europe was flat on its back). Americans decided rapid and unchallenged economic growth was our birthright from God. Meanwhile, big media got big, and the way it got and stayed rich was to pitch to the center (of tastes, of income, of politics). The Religious Right had largely withdrawn from politics after the Scopes Monkey Trial; it would not begin to return until (slowly at first) Sen. Barry Goldwater, then Jimmy Carter and finally Ronald Reagan began tapping into it as a way to get support from outside the mainstream party constituents. Thanks to the economy's unprecedented growth (and a lack of major downturns, due to the government's role in smoothing out the boom-and-bust cycle), there was a growing middle class, which served as a moderating and stabilizing force. More and more students pursued higher education; new jobs in computers and science required more education, and they also paid better salaries. Exciting (and nationalistically supportive) advances in science fed people and money into further scientific education and research, all of which fed our continuing advances in economics and science.

You get the point. It was a virtuous cycle, but not a perpetual one. Other countries recovered from their previous economic and military weaknesses. The Religious Right decided it liked having a seat at the table. The Soviet bloc shrugged off communism. The media landscape fractured, with news departments splicing and targeting segments of the population instead of the broad middle. America's love of science withered, and its previous love of patent-medicine new-age BS returned.

I'm not sure just how upset we should be about people like Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and Karl Rove. I think all of them are part of a very negative trend in this country. My point with this post is just to note that they are more normal than we would like to believe. Barack Obama – for whom I voted in 2008, and for whom I fully expect to vote in 2012 – nonetheless sold the country a bill of goods in his campaign when he promised to return civility and peace to Washington. Civility and peace won't return to Washington. (For one, Rupert Murdoch has no interest in that happening.)

These things don't turn around quickly, and I'm not sure there's much impetus in this country to steer it back into calm waters. Yes, there's the Jon Stewart Rally to Restore Sanity; there's New York's independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg's quest to support moderate Republicans and Democrats across the country; there are groups that try to hold non-partisan, intelligent conversations on topics of mutual interest. But we are a nation of more than 300 million people; it will take more than a couple million to turn this ship around.

When evangelist Billy Graham was trying to get audiences to make a commitment to Christ, he would begin with tales of political strife and natural disasters right off the newspapers. Then he would tell people that this showed things were getting worse, that the end of the world was nigh, so they'd better make their peace with their creator or it might be too late and they'd spend all eternity in hell with no cable TV.

It was a cheap ploy of Graham's, but it worked for many people. It was predicated on his audience not knowing that the newspapers have always been filled with tales of serial murderers and devastating hurricanes. Read The Devil in the White City. Read Sin in the Second City. Read Roman history. Heck, read the Bible. These things are always in the news because they're always happening. There have always been people doing bad things, and there has always been weather.

I think Christianity can stand or fall without Graham-like deception. And I think American politics can do without the deception of the Roves and Tea Partiers who treat politics like a game. If the new Right were honest about what it wanted and offered realistic ways of accomplishing it, then fine. People could vote for their plans or against them and we could get on with self-governing life in our republic. But so much of the right-wingers' political speech these days is outright lies (about Obama, about economics, about their own moral hypocrisy) that I can't accept them as legitimate players in the national debate.

I can't accept them, but that doesn't mean that I don't accept the fact that they are players in the national debate. They might not have truth or wisdom on their side, but the Tea Party has an audience for the tales they spin.

Because Americans are dreamers.

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