“In the present situation of the United States, divided as they are between two parties, which mutually accuse each other of perfidy and treason…this exalted station [the presidency] is surrounded with dangerous rocks, and the most eminent abilities will not be sufficient to steer clear of them all.” Whereas Washington had been able to levitate above the partisan factions, “the next president of the United States will only be the president of a party.”
The quote, from “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation” by Joseph J. Ellis, sounds like something that would fit well in place in today’s “highly polarized” politics. Only the grammatical structure and vocabulary (e.g., “perfidy”, “exalted”, “eminent abilities”) make it stand out from the more, um, succinct versions we would be likely to hear today (e.g. “You lie!”).
The obvious decay in the use of complex, rich language to convey and argue about complex, rich ideas, is perhaps one thing that has definitely changed in the last two hundred years and something that I wish could be reversed; and yet this particular is not restricted to politics. When longhand and carrier mail is replaced by 140 characters and texting, these things are bound to happen.
What has not changed is the emotionally charged, fiercely fought nature of political campaigns in America. If you take as a yardstick that Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804 as a result of a kerfuffle coming out of remarks in the middle of a campaign, I’d argue we still have a ways to go to get to “extreme partisanship.” And let’s not forget the kinds of statements on both sides of the line before, during, and even after the Civil War. Or the 60s, which saw Vietnam, riots, and the assassinations of three leaders, or… you get the point.
But surely, you’d say, when one party freely flings at another accusations of, say, fascism, we have crossed a line? After all, the 19th century didn’t yet know the suffering and horror of not one but two world wars driven by this ideology bent on domination? Surely the strange concept of accusing President Obama of being both a Fascist and a Socialist –two ideologies that, in their basis, flatly contradict each other– is new?
“In Central Europe the march of Socialist or Fascist dictatorships and their destruction of liberty did not set out with guns and armies. Dictators began their ascent to the seats of power through the elections provided by liberal institutions. Their weapons were promise and hate. They offered the mirage of Utopia to those in distress. They flung the poison of class hatred. They may not have maimed the bodies of men, but they maimed their souls.
[Roosevelt’s] 1932 campaign was a pretty good imitation of this first stage of European tactics. You may recall the promises of the abundant life, the propaganda of hate.”
–Herbert Hoover, in a speech to the Republican National Convention, June 10, 1936
Hoover wasn’t alone in making this comparison. Other opponents of the New Deal were similarly apoplectic in their pronouncements. Imagine the power of this comparison right at the moment when these ideologies, now broken, where ascendant. While I am guessing that many people today may not have in mind the full context of the contradiction when they simultaneously accuse Obama of being an appeaser (with Iran), a Socialist, and a Fascist, you can bet that politicians using these analogies in the 1930s were well aware of the incongruity of their argument.
This wasn’t a temporary situation; these arguments resurface, time and again:
“Fascism was really the basis for the New Deal. It was Mussolini’s success in Italy, with his government-directed economy, that led the early New Dealers to say ‘But Mussolini keeps the trains running on time.’“
–Ronald Reagan in May 17, 1976 Time Magazine.
And what about the flip side? Republicans now regularly praise President Truman (quite vocally during the 2008 election, during which they compared him to Sarah Palin, and Mitt Romney recently invoked him during a speech at the NRA) while decrying the charges that Democrats level at them as “class warfare”. But:
“I would like to say a word or two now on what I think the Republican philosophy is; and I will speak from actions and from history and from experience.
The situation in 1932 was due to the policies of the Republican Party control of the Government of the United States. The Republican Party, as I said a while ago, favors the privileged few and not the common everyday man. Ever since its inception, that party has been under the control of special privilege; and they have completely proved it in the 80th Congress. They proved it by the things they did to the people, and not for them. They proved it by the things they failed to do.”
–Harry S. Truman in his speech to the Democratic National Convention, June 15, 1948
Presumably, Republicans from 1948 would find it strange that current-day praise of Truman seems to ignore these types of pronouncements.
In all, most if not all campaigns wrap themselves in terms of near-life-and-death struggles. I personally remember clearly that since 2004, every single presidential election has been defined by both parties as “The most important election in our lifetimes.” And this isn’t new — you can find quotes stating the same for nearly most, if not all, presidential elections.
Why? Because it’s part of the process.
— oOo —
True democratic process is one of passionate, sometimes even extreme, arguments and grassroots efforts culminating in an election. If you lose, you regroup and prepare for the next. It’s true, I think, that the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet have increased the feeling of a “permanent campaign,” but we’ve lived with it for a couple of decades now and it hasn’t destroyed the process — if anything, it has supercharged it.
I don’t mean to imply that wildly exaggerated remarks, or extreme, false accusations are good. I don’t think they are. What I’m saying is that American democracy is vibrant precisely because of the energy, the tug and pull of politics in this country, and that inevitably that leads to some extremes. Even at the peak of demagoguery, every election, more or less, ends up becoming a fight of ideas and visions for the future. Do we need more or less regulation? Do we need a stronger safety net? What do we think about social issues?
What’s the alternative? There are actually many of course: a dictatorship on one extreme, anarchy on the other. And the US is nowhere near any of these extremes (fears of some people on the right notwithstanding). But to look at the more realistic ones, consider how democracies are working (or rather, not quite working) in other countries, for example in Russia, or Argentina. Russia is perhaps a difficult example because of the structural shock of the fall of the Soviet Union. Argentina, on the other hand, emerged from dictatorship almost three decades ago with a fairly strong two-party system. (Sidenote: whereas the US skews center-right, Argentina’s political system skews center-left. Someone like Obama would be firmly center-right in Argentina, and there’s really no equivalent to the Republican party in Argentinian politics). In the last three decades, for various reasons –too many to go into detail in this post–, the two party system in Argentina has been eviscerated. There is now, in effect, only one fully-functioning party, that used to be the Peronist party and now the (nominal) opposition is mostly composed of factions of that party. The result is a lack of argument and political discourse that is slowly but surely eroding democratic principles. What does this look like in practice? Consider this: President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was re-elected without having to debate her opponents even once. This is no doubt expedient for the candidate that can get away with it, but it’s not good for the process, and in the end it’s arguably not good for the candidate either. Candidates benefit from having to present and defend competing visions of the future, and the political process in the US gives them, or rather, requires, plenty of that.
Additionally, the lack of a passionately vibrant political process and of clear choice (even if the choices seem to be worlds apart) leads whoever is in power to seek re-election just for the sake of retaining power itself, not to advance their ideas. It is no longer a matter of offering competing visions for the future of the country, since there’s no one to compete with, but of retaining power to maintain the status quo. Leaders become insulated and reluctant to change. Compromise, however feeble or minor it may seem in a “highly polarized” political environment like the US, simply disappears.
But isn’t compromise dead in the US? Republican stonewalling during the last few years would seem to prove that this is the case. But consider that George W. Bush emerged from his re-election with control of both houses of Congress, as did Obama in 2008. And yet, when they tried to pass legislation that the other party fiercely opposed (Social Security reform in Bush’s case, Health Care reform in Obama’s case) the results showed that even under one-party rule with a functioning two-party system some form of compromise must exist. Bush’s Social Security reform failed to pass. Obama’s Health Care reform passed, but significantly diluted from the progressive ideal of universal coverage that was the goal all along.
This is not an argument to ignore the very real differences between the alternatives or to engage in false equivalencies in which denying plain facts becomes, somehow, “a point of view.” So, like many others, I do worry when I see some extremes getting closer to the mainstream. I worry, for example, that many people today, mostly on the Republican side, deny the evidence that climate change is happening and, more alarming still, seem to be somewhat gleefully anti-science. Do I wish this wouldn’t be the case? Absolutely. I worry, yes, but I don’t despair, because I consider the alternative: not necessarily the extremes of anarchy or dictatorship, but one where the process by which democracy takes place has been subdued and even subverted and it becomes only superficial theater, where “elections” are won without debate or with 80 or 90% of the vote. In this sense, the laws that are intended to suppress turnout (and are now a point of contention) along with the perennial redistricting to make seats “safe” are to me more concerning than whether a group of people, however large, temporarily decides that Climate Change is somehow a well-orchestrated hoax among a bunch of scientists. They are more concerning because they strike at the heart of the process, making accountability harder and getting closer to the pursuit of power for power’s own sake, at any cost.
Today’s “50/50 nation” can be frustrating, and even scary at times, for all sides, but in that delicate balance lies the energy and vitality of modern democracy, and it is through the process of hard-fought campaigns ending in elections that ideas are advanced and evolve, rather than in one particular result. Results matter a great deal, but they are not definitive if the process works (however imperfectly) because it extends beyond that one result to affect all that follow.
In other words: in any one election, the process matters more than the outcome.