Wednesday, June 16, 2004
I think Mickey Kaus is pretty much 100% right in this post about why politics have gotten so nasty. I note that most of his reasons echo the GOP line - his overarching argument that the socially liberal elite is more confident and united that it had been before; his point #4 that pursuit of social change through the courts enrages the losers; his point #5 that Democratic interest groups are fighting constant rear-guard actions to protect old privileges; his point #7 - and those that don't echo the GOP line don't echo the Democrat line either - his point #1 that consensus on core issues creates a narcissism of small differences; his points #2 and #3 about gerrymandering and new communications technologies (you could extend this; it's not just gerrymandering but a whole host of technologies that make it more possible than before to find the combination of policies and messages that get to 50.1%, turning politics into trench-warfare over tiny strips of battleground); and his point #6 about the loss of privacy.
I'd add one more key point: that the political realignment that sent Southern conservative white Democrats into the arms of the GOP and Northern liberal white Republicans into the arms of the Dems has made for much greater national polarization between the parties than had been the case before. FDR's and LBJ's Democrats included culturally conservative and hawkish Southern bulls as well as Northern ethnics who favored left-wing economics and a slice of the WASP aristocracy; the GOP of the time had both Taft and Dewey wings, included New England and Mid-Atlantic WASP liberals along with midwestern and California burghers with markedly more conservative views. That's not really the case anymore, and the result is less ability to identify with the people on the other side of the aisle.
But there's another argument missing: who says politics are much more polarized and nasty now? Compared to when? Compared to Lee Atwater's Bush campaign of 1988? Compared to the Robert Bork/Jim Wright/John Tower/Etc. fights of the late 1980s? Compared to Nixon with his enemies list (and the Nixon haters with their bloodlust)? Compared to "hey, hey, LBK, how many kids did you kill today?" Compared to Truman calling Dewey's GOP proto-fascist, or McCarthy waving his list of Reds in the State Department? Personally, I thought the 1992 campaign was remarkably substantive on all sides (if utterly inept on the GOP's end) and the 1994 GOP campaign for Congress equally so. I thought the 1996 campaign was, if anything, too civil (and not very substantive at all). I thought Bush did an admirable job in 2000 of not slinging mud (at least in the general election campaign) the way his father's campaign did. That served his interest, sure, but it's also true. I also thought he ran an extremely substantive campaign. So what are we talking about here? The holdup of Bush's judicial appointments? The Cleland/Chambliss race in 2002?
And even if we're talking about cultural conflict rather than political conflict - home-schooling evangelicals vs. gay-rights advocates - are things really more polarized than they were, say, in 1969? Are people really more riled up about today's culture war than they were about, say, the enormous rise in crime from 1965 through 1990 or so? I'm skeptical.
Anyhow, we're better off than those Europeans who avoid nasty ideological conflict by forbidding anyone to talk about anything that might generate disagreement.