Nasty and Brutish:
Why Are Politics So Ugly Right Now?
The twenty months since Barack Obama’s inauguration have been marked by extraordinarily intense and venomous confrontation between the majority Democrats and the Republican opposition. Scurrilous rumors have been propagated about Obama himself: he’s a closet Muslim, he wasn’t born in the United States, he hates white people; the list just goes on and on. The prolonged battle for health care reform saw near-unanimous Republican opposition, including the deliberate distortion of the plan’s provisions in order to frighten senior citizens and others. It has been an ugly time.
The political climate, however, has been increasingly contentious over the last half century or more. We can remember the intense hostility provoked by the brash conservatism of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Many were as convinced then that Bush was subverting the constitution, as others make the same allegation now about Obama. Who can forget the prolonged Republican crusade against Bill Clinton, culminating in the failed attempt to remove him from office via impeachment? Recall the rancor surrounding Reagan’s Central American policy, including the Iran-Contra scandal that crippled him in his second term? The impeachment and resignation of Nixon can be seen as one of the roots of Republican resentment. Remember the late sixties and early seventies: the antiwar movement, the Black Power movement, civil rights agitation? When John Kennedy was assassinated, how plausible it was to think that Texas segregationists were behind it. And what about Joe McCarthy and his acolytes like Richard Nixon, accusing Democrats and government officials of Communist subversion?
So it’s been going on for a long time, but it really has gotten worse. McCarthy, after all, was repudiated, while today, purveyors of scurrilous accusations have millions of adherents. The civil rights movement really did succeed, at least at the legal level. Nixon’s impeachment had the support of a considerable number of Republicans. Democrats could have impeached Reagan over Iran-Contra, but did not, perhaps because they wanted to avoid further polarization of the country. Clinton, after suffering the humiliation of losing both houses of Congress in 1994, actually worked with the Republicans on a major welfare reform bill (before the Republicans turned around and tried to remove him). Even George W. Bush benefited from substantial Democratic support for his invasion of Iraq, and managed to get along with a Democratic Congress his last two years. The level of venom in Obama’s first two years is probably the worst that we’ve seen, but it’s not unprecedented.
Why is it so ugly? I suggest four reasons. First, there is real and widespread unhappiness with the state of the economy, the perfidy of Wall Street, bank bailouts, and government deficits. There is impatience with the weak results of government efforts to stimulate the economy. People are, in short, angry, and inclined to take it out on the party and president in power.
Second, people know that the country is in a bad way, and think that it will get worse. But there are sharp disagreements on what to do about it. Conservatives and Republicans are convinced that the answer to all problems is smaller government and lower taxes. Liberals and Democrats want stronger government to protect the public interest against self-serving big corporations. And moderates are just uncertain, but wish everyone could just get along. Many moderates voted for Obama because he promised to end the extreme partisanship that had characterized the Bush years.
The third point follows from the second. There is a real polarization of ideas that is more extreme than we have seen in a century. President Obama’s futile efforts at conciliation notwithstanding, there is little room for compromise between conservatives and liberals today. What we get instead is the deadlock produced by the constitutional checks and balances of our political institutions, where each side can block the other, and each can blame the other.
Finally, in the last twenty years, and in the context of the preceding three conditions, we have seen the emergence of a take-no-prisoners political style, particularly on the Republican side (e.g., the Tea Party movement) that thrives by mobilizing the most intense and extreme partisans, and that denies the fundamental legitimacy of their opponents. These are the people for whom Obama’s victory signified the subversion of America, and that is why they speak of “taking our country back.”
Is there a way out of this? I don’t see one in the short term. The fever has to run its course.