Tag Archives: american politics

American Dislocations

Chicago, 1968                                                The Washington Post

The current President produces a jarring and familiar sense of dislocation:  behavior rife with violated norms, intimations of collusion with shady figures, and shameless cronyism.

Was it always so?

Using the foreshortened perspective that looking back in time allows, its easy to see the United States as a civil society that is nearly always peering into the abyss of political crisis. These varied downturns are not quite existential threats; there’s usually no fear for the survival of the republic.  But as they unfold in real time, they can still seem overwhelming.

Was it always so?

As young people, our parents or grandparents stared down the gunbarrel of international catastrophe.  Eventually, America’s participation in the Second World War became heroic.  But the threat of a Nazi Europe  and a rising Japan left few untouched.  Germany’s bid for hegemony clearly failed, yet the eventual petition of western Europe at the hands of our former Soviet allies triggered new waves of governmental overreach.  Congress was at the center of anti-communist hysteria that chained out in fantasies of internal subversion. Throughout the 1950s, those who traded in such dystopian speculations were certain that Americans were not safe as long as the likes of Leonard Bernstein or Dalton Trumbo were loose in the Republic.  What would eventually become McCarthyism pushed America into bouts of anti-intellectual fervor that equals the magical thinking that now dominates our news.

In different ways it would be no less for ‘boomers’ like myself growing up in the 1960s. The proliferating spread of television put us in a front row seat for a stormy decade that would rob the nation of 58,000 American lives in Vietnam, a popular President and his brother, and the nation’s leading civil rights leader.  Racial tensions flared into open mayhem in Detroit, Los Angeles and other American cities. And within a year of the worst riots, the nation shamed a discredited Lyndon Johnson into declining to serve a second presidential term. The new heir to the office in 1968 was a moody Republican whose own devolution would be complete in the first years of the next decade.  Richard Nixon eventually resigned, impeached and disgraced. That was only a few years after the hot summer of political violence that culminated in a “police riot” and bloodshed at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. As a high school student living through the 60s in the sheltered heights of a mountain town, I can still recall a sinking feeling that the meltdowns of the decade amounted to a kind of second Civil War.

It seems like American politics is much like North American weather: brutish, prone to jarring changes, and sometimes lethal. Even so, it is interesting that Canadians living under the same meteorological forces seem more willing to forgo the kinds of tribal battles that routinely drain Americans of the natural optimism. Issues that easily cripple and harden Americans—health care, regional sovereignty, “fair” taxation—seem to be resolved with more grace and less drama by our northern neighbors. Is the fact that the nation never suffered through a crushing civil war a factor? Canada’s lesson for us is that nations not on the brink offer fewer psychological rewards to those who would make virulent opposition a lifelong occupation.

The challenge of nurturing a successful civil society is not just our battle to wage. In smaller and different ways some of the same issues exist in important nations in Europe. But it feels like we have the dubious distinction of constructing crises of our own making, putting ourselves at a disadvantage to find pathways of communication that can take away the strangeness of our neighbors.

The Oppositional Turn

Source: White House photographer Pete Souza
Obama comforting a Hurricane Sandy Victim Source: White House Photographer: Pete Souza

 Almost all of the energy in our public rhetoric is reserved for unmasking what appears to many as the unjustified and self-serving optimism of political elites.

Anyone listening to any past president surely noticed that their public rhetoric was in a distinctly different key. Assuming that Donald Trump is a one-off anomaly, presidents speak in major chords that emphasize positivity, success, praise, enduring values, and always a degree of hope.  It’s the nature of the office to be affirming.  But such rhetoric is increasingly at odds with the sour and minor keys that tend to dominate the ‘rough music’ that comes with significant national and political events. It can hardly be news that irony and suspicion rule our airwaves, talk shows, blogs, news sites, and twitter feeds.

It’s clear to anyone who is listening that we live in an era dominated by oppositional rhetoric. The cultural voices that command the greatest attention are mostly reactive, negative and frequently vitriolic.  Almost of this energy goes into unmasking what appears to so many as the unjustified and self-serving optimism of political and corporate elites.  Increasingly, the negativity of the internet troll looks less like an isolated aberration than a new and durable rhetorical norm.  As a younger student of political communication in the 1970s, I don’t recall seeing the plethora of books asserting presidential conspiracies than can now be found among the “new releases” on the shelves of our public libraries.  And there is, of course, the current President’s daily vitriol.

How did we get here?  A bit of this effect is a matter of perception. The democratization of news gathering—or at least news commentary—means we hear less from official voices and more from dissenters.  Presidents can no longer easily command broadcasters to turn over prime time for an important speech.  The media competition for attention is too great. At the same time, more of our informational sources have merged straight reporting of public events with the entertainment imperative of centering a program on a host who can issue slicing rebukes. We expect our news with the twist of irony that comes easily in The Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, or online outlets like Slate or Salon.com.  As for talk radio: outside of NPR, no one seems to want to sound like a good-government wonk from Minnesota. A surer route to success is to become the audio equivalent of a professional wrestler tossing unworthy adversaries over the ropes.

In actual fact, as psychologist Stephen Pinker has noted in The Better Angels of Our Nature (Penguin, 2012), we are a somewhat more compassionate society than the one our ancestors knew. But it also seems apparent that we have less interest in advocates motivated to find common ground in civil discourse. This splintering of the culture is thus partly the effect of more decentralized and polarized news media, but it’s also caused by a cultural turn away from the communitarian trope that was proudly uttered in defense of significant advances in social welfare legislation following World War II.  The G.I. Bill, Social Security, and the civil rights acts of the mid-1960s were milestones as enactments of this value, which could be summarized as broad support to use the political resources of the nation for the benefit of all. In this common pre-Reagan belief, government was the solution, not the problem.

The challenge posed by the newer turn toward a more atomized and suspicious culture is whether we and other western democracies can maintain a sense of shared national destiny.  With a fragmented nation now served by fragmented media, finding what unites us is more difficult. That search is compounded by the fact that we no longer pay much attention to Presidents, even when they yearned to be the poets of our national spirit.