Is there any way out of it – the hateful conflict between left and right even within the roughly agreed upon ideal borders of a representative democracy? Why should we think so? The right, we know, does not utopias envision. The left sees them well enough, but those ideal worlds all lack one thing – the right. Hmn. Not much prospect of cooperation there.
The days of yore so often yearned for, of bipartisan cooperation – like the “innocence” we lose with each new inhumanity we humans muster – recede in the distance, with every approach, like the far horizon. People who know far better than I – professional pols and their professional watchers of every kind – will wax civilized over the collegiality-gone-by of the senate, once, they knew. How the senators respected their fellow strivers-for-the-republic despite the opposing policies they reviled. Blood in the chamber, bourbon in the cloak room, belly laughs at the bar. But the Republican Party, certainly in its public and leadership voices, does not long for those days. From the Gingrich insurgency onward, conciliation has been recalled as cooption – the Republican minority mouse that meowed and went along. To come together there has to be a common dream, and that ain’t it.
The common dream, you’d think, would be the founding ideals of the nation, but there isn’t much agreement on what they are these days either. A good look back, too, reveals a less rosy history of agreeable amen’s. Opponents called Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel, an adulteress, which Jackson blamed for her death in the days before he took office. George Washington – George Washington – said of Jefferson’s French-Revolution-idealizing Democratic-Republicans that they would “leave nothing unattempted to overturn the Government of this Country,” though he didn’t say it in public. But many vicious attacks were made publicly during the seminal presidential campaign of 1800 between the Federalists and the Jeffersonians. Jefferson was depicted in one political cartoon as being supported by Satan in his attempt to destroy the constitution. As early as 1793, he had written James Madison to urge him, of Alexander Hamilton, to “for god’s sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to peices [sic] in the face of the public.”
Our founding band of brothers.
Still, in old age, after decades of estrangement, Jefferson and John Adams could reconcile in retrospective appreciation of the greatness of their joint accomplishment.
What constructive legacy will Rush Limbaugh reflect on? Or Glenn Beck? Michael Steele? Do you think that one day history text books will offer images of the 2009 summer town halls, angry citizens raising their righteous arms in outrage, a copy of Tom Paine scrolled in their fists? Will we etch the tweets of Sarah Palin into student memory? Maybe classes will watch videos of McCain rallies and hear the cries, against Obama, of “terrorist” and “kill him!” Maybe they’ll gaze on footage of holstered guns at Presidential speeches and swell with pride. What historic compensation will there be for our present hail of calumny?
Conservatives, of course, will offer, in response, their own litany of liberal outrages – and they exist – and sometimes it seems trying to argue it all out is liking attempting to sort through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of some originating and primary historical transgression, which if only the other side would confess, the truth will have been obtained. So the 2000-election Supreme Court decision is preceded by all kinds of Clinton abuses, which follow the Gingrich guerilla war to take back the congress, which gained inspiration from the borking of Bork, which itself was inspired by the very nomination of Bork, and, oh, I think I’ll stop there.
None of this is to say it’s all a relative wash. “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” is not the insight of post-colonial wisdom; it is a default of reason, and the belief that through reason we can judge circumstance and make meaningful distinctions, not only about how a person fights, but for what she fights. So, too, disputes between right and left. If we can look at the historical record and acknowledge that – no less than the buffoonish Falwell and Robertson – there were those on the left who blamed the U.S. for 9/11 because they believed to little in any goodness the nation possesses to be aggrieved by an attack on it, then, if we pretend to intellectual honesty, we might admit to some other truths. A presidential election decided by the Supreme Court is bound to provoke emotion enough. When the decision, against liberals, by five conservative justices, is based upon a principle that until that moment their conservative philosophies and careers had rejected, then emotion is bound to become defensible outrage. Robert Bork was, and remained, outside the mainstream of American jurisprudence. The right will say that he is brilliant. Noam Chomsky is brilliant. Slavoj Zizek is brilliant. Shall we form a triumvirate? The Great Spirit save us from brilliant men. And ignorant ones too. Damn smart, with sound judgment and a mystical measure of wisdom will do us better.
Too few people who make the public debate will admit such thoughts. The disease of ideology riddles the political mind, and truth slips through the holes. We can try, though – what else is there to do? – over and over, to fix the mind on the substance of things, to lead the debate to reality and not to rhetorical maneuvers.
A review of official party platforms – those documents of principle and policy produced by the Democrats and Republicans each presidential election year – provides some interesting insights into rhetoric, perspective, and how the parties tend to frame the debate. Not surprisingly, the party that has been out of power for a while, like the Democrats in 1992, will consider the nation quite worse for it, and facing serious problems. To varying degrees, it is always so. For the Republicans, though, our liberty and the fate of the nation, in the hands of the Democrats, are often at stake. States the 1936 Republican platform
America is in peril. The welfare of American men and women and the future of our youth are at stake. We dedicate ourselves to the preservation of their political liberty, their individual opportunity and their character as free citizens, which today for the first time are threatened by Government itself.
(In an interesting sidelight, the platform introduction also claims that the “powers of Congress have been usurped by the President” and the “integrity and authority of the Supreme Court have been flouted.” How tides do turn.)
The 1952 platform asserts
that during the last twenty years, leaders of the Government of the United States under successive Democrat Administrations …have …so undermined the foundations of our Republic as to threaten its existence.
We charge that they have arrogantly deprived our citizens of precious liberties by seizing powers never granted.
We charge that they work unceasingly to achieve their goal of national socialism.
By the 1964 platform we are told
Humanity is tormented once again by an age-old issue—is man to live in dignity and freedom under God or be enslaved—are men in government to serve, or are they to master, their fellow men?
….Even in this Constitutional Republic, for two centuries the beacon of liberty the world over, individual freedom retreats under the mounting assault of expanding centralized power. Fiscal and economic excesses, too long indulged, already have eroded and threatened the greatest experiment in self-government mankind has known.
And in 1980 we hear
The Republican Party convenes, presents this platform, and selects its nominees at a time of crisis. America is adrift….
….History could record, if we let the drift go on, that the American experiment, so marvelously successful for 200 years, came strangely, needlessly, tragically to a dismal end early in our third century.
It is hard to know which one prefers, the chicken or the little, but clearly, by Republican lights, the town hall crier this summer who said she wants “her country back, according to the constitution” wants a thing she never had, because she is too young to have been born into it: it was, the Republicans keep telling us, lost long ago – over and over again.
What we see now on the right, then, is not without precedent, but to say the present has mirrors in the past is not to say we know the future too. Every time it will be different. One cannot be sanguine about the levels of ill-informed rage, intolerant intimidations masquerading as exercises in democratic debate, the ugly, hateful names, the xenophobia, the racism cloaked in humor and theatrics by media demagogues, the brandishing of guns, the calls of Nazi, socialist – Martian, whatever. The “death panel” lies. The health care concentration camps hysteria. The “C” Street religious megalomania. The birthers (just like the 9/11 truthers) and all the elected officials who would not denounce them. Senator Tom Coburn on Meet the Press refusing to criticize the wearing of guns at a Presidential speech. The anxieties of ordinary people stoked to a fever pitch by cynical pols. And not yet one significant Republican figure willing – however best it might be done – to stand and lead another way.
Once, famously, William Buckley and Barry Goldwater rejected The John Birch Society as an acceptable part of American conservatism. Now the Republican Party is The John Birch Society. It is a raging Id in the guise of a political philosophy, and it needs to be contended with one exercise in reason, smart politics, and human decency at a time.
Either that or the nation is in peril.