Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Fraying of America: An Explanation

I know this sounds obsessive, but I am still thinking about the flood of invective recently aimed at Sarah Palin and members of her family in the left-leaning parts of the internet and mainstream media. It was rather startling to those of us who were not taking part in it.

Public discourse in this country, whether it involves an election campaign or a Supreme Court nomination, is often a festival of invective, character-assassination, and incivility. I am tempted to try to accumulate more examples but the problem with that is, since this is a broad cultural phenomenon and we are all part of it, the natural reaction will often be something like, "well that one's not a good example, because those particular bastards had it coming."

But surely examples are not necessary. American leftists must know in their hearts that for at least six or seven years their attitude toward GeorgeW. Bush has been one of more or less pure hatred. And those on the other side can remember the eight years of Clinton-hating that preceded that.

The neo-Tocquevillian idea that participating in the modern democratic state is something that draws us together into a national conversation about common goals and aspirations is turning into an ugly joke. What I see, more and more, is mutual hatred and suspicion.

Admittedly, there have been times when the level of discourse was in some ways much worse than it is now. It was no doubt worse on the day in 1855 when Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Senator Charles Sumner senseless on the floor of the Senate with a walking stick. There is another way in which those days were different, aside from being even more angry and hateful: in those days, there was an obvious reason for that anger and hatred. The single issue of slavery set citizens against each other in conflict that admitted little or no compromise.

Today, there is no such single issue. There is a reason, though, and it is one that in a subtle way may be worse that the one that underlay the Brooks-Sumner sort of conflict.

Today, it is the system itself that sets people against each other. When we participate in any political process nowadays, we always face opponents who seek to impose some coercive policy or other on us. They may want to to spread American-style democracy by deadly means around the world, in your name and at your expense. They may want to provide free health care for all, a policy that is not by any means free. They may want the police to scare you out of your dependence on a variety of substances, from heroin to trans-fats and beyond. The policies I have in mind vary widely, but they all have one thing in common. In every case someone seeks to to achieve some goal that is their and not yours -- whether that goal is to line their own pockets or achieve their personal vision of the good society -- at your expense. There is no way to see this as a positive-sum situation. One man's gain is another's loss. If they win, it is because you lose, and vice versa.

We have reversed von Clausewitiz: Politics is civil war carried out by other means. The really sad truth is that our mutual hatred and suspicion are well grounded and more or less rational.

We, the rest of us, the world minus you, really are your enemies. Every time there is an election, we are trying to thwart your interests and ideals by coercive means and force others on you instead. Aside from the handful of individual rights codified in the Bill of Rights, there really are no limits to what the rest of us are willing to do to you, and will do, if we get the chance.

Of course, alternative systems are conceivable. I can conceive of at least two: 1) We might let the nation state disintegrate into smaller and smaller units, until any given state is inhabited only by people whose interests and standards of value are perfectly harmonious. In many cases, the number of these fellow citizens will be exactly one. This I admit is not very practical. But there is an alternative. 2) We could limit the powers of government to only doing things that are genuinely in everyone's interests, such as maintaining public order and providing certain other "public goods."

I realize we are not going to do either of these things any time soon. But then I do not anticipate the return of civility any sooner than that.


Anonymous said...

It would be nice to say the
"we the people" are the greatest special interest group in America and for a number of years many middle class Americans thought they were. However the illusion was shattered when they discovered they were little more than fodder fo corporations that globalized and left them on the roadside.

True the left wing has been rather proactive towards Gov Palin but the treatment of Obama as a "muslim" and "commie" has been ongoing. Likewise the right wing treatment of Clintons the 90's was even worse.

Consider the fact that 2 weeks ago we knew nothing of this woman but now she is the darling of "red america" where they "cling to their guns and religion". I really love her "put on" country twang. Weren't we down this road before voting for the guy we wanted to "have a beer with".

This person has 18 months of "executive experience" running a state that is economically and population wise smaller than most suburban counties. But now she will potentially deal with the likes of Vladimir Putin and others. I think she woould be questionable as cabinet secretary. With the likes of Christy Whitman, Condoleeeza Rice or Elaine Chow, McCain chooses "Roseanne's Sister"

Has this person published any significant article or book ala Obama?

Could you imagine Putin or Merkl's daughter 5 months pregnant on stage with her jock brain shotgun wedding boyfriend?

FOX just did a 1 hour "exclusive" on Ms Palin and alot of the footage was camcorder home movies of her. Talking about "pulling the wool".

Just what have you been smoking in Wisconsin these days?

Lester Hunt said...


This really is off-topic. The issue I was raising was not the substantive merits of any candidate but the way people talk about them. From now on, whenever anyone is this far off topic, I won't publish their comment.

Michael Drake said...

Lester, the claim of a "flood of invective" here is pretty hard to credit. In the age of the internets, all candidates (and anyone else of public note) are subject to copious invective. And if the concern is a general one about the quality of discourse, I'm with you.

But as a matter of "mainstream" coverage, it's hard to see that Palin has had a particularly rough ride. McCain staked his whole campaign on how "unqualified" Obama supposedly was, then selects a Veep that has even lesser qualifications than Tim Kaine. So by choosing her, McCain effectively admitted his own rhetoric about qualification was complete bullshit. Surely the MSM was correct to pursue critical questioning on that (and related) disingenuousness.

Meanwhile, the half-truths and lies peppered throughout Palin's initial two speeches went largely unnoted by the MSM, who for the most part gushed over how well she read prepared speeches.

And even the unfelicitous attention by the MSM to personal issues like Palin's daughter's pregancy, her husband's membership to the AIP (not to mention her own support of that group), and so on, besides being in significant part exacerbated by the McCain campaign's own machinations, was nothing as compared to what would have transpired had the shoe been on the other foot. Suppose it had been one of Obama's daughters who had gotten pregnant -- a thought experiment that really isn't all that speculative, considering conservative talking heads had already opined on the ineluctable relation between teen pregnancy and parental irresponsibility. Or suppose Michelle Obama had been a member of a Hawaiian secessionist group. (My God, it was bad enough that Obama would even take a vacation in so foreign a land.)

So while I'm sympathetic with your views about the general problem, I would say Palin is very far from being an apt example of a pol who's been subject to mainstream vilification.

Anonymous said...

With due respect Lester perhaps the nastiness is due to the lack of real power that the people have. Those in power could care less that we can have endless debate which degrades into senselessness from both the right and the left. The problems go very deep including corruption and an economic system which is oversold. Ironically the Soviet empire of communism crumbled due to corruption and cronyism and our's shows similarities. Sorry if I appeared to be off topic but I simply feel that just letting the people believe we have a true debate while the proffessionals in power of our geoeconomic system have cornered all of the talent and technology for advancement of their own personal agenda.

Lester Hunt said...


It sounds like you are saying that the phenomenon, insofar as it is real, can be attributed to 1) the effects of the internet and 2) the bad behavior of those mean old Republicans. Actually, I think that, not only does the left do it too, they pioneered it, and long before the internet was even a gleam in Al Gore's eye. I think the dawn of the current era of there-are-no-limits political rhetoric was 1964, with Bill Moyers' brilliant "Daisy" attack ad, and "Fact:" Magazine's "The Subconscious of a Concervative."

I think we should all beware of thinking that the bad behavior is all on the other side. The fact that this attitude is so common on the left literally makes me fear for this Republic.

Michael Drake said...

Lester, I'm not saying that the bad behavior is all on the other side, and I wouldn't hazard to speculate that its "true origins" lie on one or the other side of the aisle.* All I'm saying is that if we're going to look at the conspicuous examples of victims of political slime campaigns and how mainstream news organs can exacerbate the effects of such campaigns in a contemporary context, then Palin is not a good example.

* Yes, I do think the bad behavior clearly preponderates on the conservative side, but that's probably beside the present point.

Anonymous said...

As a person born in 1954, I remember the 1960's when we envisioned the future as a world of freedom based in technology where people at the dawn of the 21st century people flew around their cities in personal vehicles. Obviously a metaphor for human freedom.

Today some people have to spend over $100 a week to travel to a job which pays $500 a week. An American's sense of self worth is tied closely to his work and organizational status. Perhaps in American society we have oversold the work into the subconscious so that if the candidate is not an overt capitalist conservative, then he has to walk on political egg shells 'lest he be called a liberal or a softie or a commie.

The point being that we have oversold money and job to the point that anything which points the way to limitation and less selfishness ala energy cost and conditions in the inner cities gets subverted into the FOXization and Limbaughization of America.

I've been listening to this subliminal right wing propaganda too long, to not react like a typical lefty at times.

Sooner or later we all vomit.

Lester Hunt said...


As to whether the get-Palin mania is a good example, I can only say what a lot of others have said: for two administrations, the children of presidents have been treated as off-limits. This seems to have applied to candidates as well. Now suddenly they are "outing" a pregnant teenage girl. The barriers are down and the gloves are off. You are probably thinking "but that that was the work of the internet and not the MSM" -- but they worked as a shingle system. It began with some bizarre stories appearing in some rather scummy web sites and ended up with this girl's condition being broadcast in the MSM around the world. The did not work independently of each other at all. (BTW, I think Obama should get credit for saying early on that the children of candidates should remain off limits. That was an excellent statement.)

Lester Hunt said...


I think you have a point there. The feeling of powerlessness is probably part of the mix. I shouldn't have written that post in a way that suggests there is only one cause of this phenomenon and I know what it is. That actually can't be right. There must be more than one cause, and the feeling of powerlessness is indeed one of the things that can drive people wild with rage.

Anonymous said...

"The neo-Tocquevillian idea that participating in the modern democratic state is something that draws us together into a national conversation about common goals and aspirations is turning into an ugly joke. What I see, more and more, is mutual hatred and suspicion."

As any marriage counselor will tell you, when a couple is having intimacy problems or money problems, it will often manifest as insane arguments like where to put the plates in the cupboard.

Although I feel some sympathy for Bush; when you enter office with a huge surplus and turn it into a huge defecit caused by a war that many on the left deemed unnecessary, it's bound to turn into an argument over money (capitalism vs socialism) or sex (pregnant teenage daughters).

Michael Drake said...

"[F]or two administrations, the children of presidents have been treated as off-limits. This seems to have applied to candidates as well."

Very not true.

And that joke issued without Chelsea's having done anything "wrong." Had Chelsea gotten pregnant, well, oh my, the conservatives would've lathered themselves up into the mother of all tizzies about those horrible Clintons and their lax morality. I'm also pretty sure that some "object-level" criticism would have been directed at Chelsea herself.

I don't understand your "now suddenly" clause. O'Reilly had just trashed Jamie-Lynn Spears' parents a couple of months back, right after she'd been similarly outed.

All that notwithstanding, I'm very happy that Palin has been spared the classy treatment McCain, et al., would have given her had she been similarly situated on the opposing team.

Last word's yours, Lester, if you want it.

MAM said...

Disappointingly, this discussion seems to be more continuous with the "ugly joke" that so-called political discourse has become. I don't think Dr. Hunt intended to spark a debate about Republicans, Democrats, or their respective candidates, but about the effects that our monstrous government and its two-party system has had on the people and their discourse.

The government takes so much of our money and uses it in so many different ways that it is not completely unreasonable for the people to become passionate and vocal about the ways in which they want the government to use it. Take public schools for example: "Teach ID," says one side. "Teach Evolution," says the other. It is understandable to want to influence this debate because it is YOUR tax money. But take government out of schooling, let those who run the schools decide what to teach and let the parents decide where to send their kids. Sure people will differ in opinion (and this is healthy!), but the debate is certain to be less vicious when one's money is not at stake.

The point I'm trying to make is that the more power the government has, the more is at stake in politics. The systeam seems to have pit us against each other. And in this context it is understandable (indeed reasonable, as Dr. Hunt suggests) for things to have gotten so ugly.

Lester Hunt said...

Michael, The hands-off rule is about Presidential ticket candidates, not random celebrities like Jamie-Lynn.

MAM, Thank you! That's exactly what I was trying to say. Trouble is, so many on the left have the "who me? only conservatives are ever mean!" attitude, which makes it impossible for them to discuss the phenomenon -- since their unshakable conviction of their own virtue makes it invisible to them. I find this far more disturbing mere nasty rhetoric.

Michael Drake said...

"I don't think Dr. Hunt intended to spark a debate about Republicans, Democrats, or their respective candidates, but about the effects that our monstrous government and its two-party system has had on the people and their discourse."

Nor was I. I was taking issue with what I saw as the dubious notion that Sarah Palin has suffered remarkable abuse from mainstream sources. How such an argument could proceed, though, without appealing to counterfactuals in which partisan alignments are reversed is difficult to see.

Lester Hunt said...

Hey, you said I could have the last word, dagnabbit!

keatssycamore said...

This is kind of silly hyper-ventilation from you. Especially when you concede (albeit grudgingly) this much:

"Admittedly, there have been times when the level of discourse was in some ways much worse than it is now."

Some ways? Apart from canings in the Senate and the like, you do know how the 1800 Presidential Campaign between Jefferson and Adams was conducted? If you do, then surely you realize that invective is, and always will be, a big part of our politics. In fact, here's a good article about past instances of America fraying during nasty political campaigns and which particularly highlights that 1800 race.

However, I do think that perhaps you've inadvertently demonstrated the most potent recent innovation in our political discourse; it's playing the victim!

This victimology is so pervasive in our modern politics that even a smart (and from my reading pretty non-partisan) guy like yourself gets the vapors over a couple of blogs on the old inner-tubes and begins to wonder if the Republic can survive the revealing of a teen pregnancy. You'd be better to ask yourself if the Republic can survive bailing out every idiot financial institution in sight by shackling future generations with Chinese debt. That might actually fray something.

Given the above, this comment by M. Drake strikes me as exactly correct:

"I was taking issue with what I saw as the dubious notion that Sarah Palin has suffered remarkable abuse from mainstream sources."

Lester Hunt said...

This is really weird. One sentence about Sarah Palin and that's all most of you can focus on. Clinton impeachment. Remember that? How about almost eight years of solid Bush hating? I am old enough to remember the Fact: Magazine ariticle on Goldwater. It was truly vile. And then there was the Daisy ad, the mother of them all. Hello? Who is obsessing here, anyway?

keatssycamore said...

The Sarah Palin sentence is in the topic paragraph and it sets up your entire point about "fraying invective". But let's set that aside, I was simply trying to point out that "invective" is not new to our politics and additionally, that "invective" isn't as dangerous to the country as the kind of political correctness/culture of offense and victomology that actually does appear to be a new feature on political scene.

This new development makes everyone stupider and serves to work on their outrage meters which only raises the temperature between supporters of each side. For instance, consider the McCain campaign whining in the most ridiculous and transparent fashion about the aphorism 'lipstick on a pig', and the two entire media cycles that followed the whine. I can't believe you can actually think this obviously phony "OUTRAGE over SEXISM" is a good thing for the polity.

And, BTW, my endorsement of M. Drake's Palin comment was more of a throw away to let him know that not everyone thought his response to you was completely inapt. Particularly his thoughts on Palin's treatment.

Lester Hunt said...

"I can't believe you can actually think this obviously phony "OUTRAGE over SEXISM" is a good thing for the polity." The simple answer to that is: I don't. One of the elements of the current environment is, in addition to seemingly irrational rage, what I think of as faux rage. The Republican "how could you dare be so sexist" response to Obama's lipstick on a pig comment is a good example. All I would insist on is that this is a systemic phenomenon and not just something that mean old Republicans do. An example from the other side would be "how could McCain dare to think we women would vote for someone because she is a woman! How could he dare!" -- said by a number of feminist columnists when M. named a woman as his running mate.

Anonymous said...

Going back to my original thoughts, people have little control over the economic issues that are actually worrying everyone. More importantly the politicians have very little control over the economic issues as well, so the debate gets debased into alot of non-sense, like the married couple arguing over where to put the dishes in the closet.

Sex and the abortion issue is big because many on the right believe abortion is the great sin which condemns America and they think it's one of the few things they can control.

keatssycamore said...

Lester wrote:

"I don't. One of the elements of the current environment is, in addition to seemingly irrational rage, what I think of as faux rage."

Hmm, that does seem to bring you quite a bit closer to me than I initially thought you were.

Now I don't want to be a pest or a bore, and I apologize if I am, but I'm enjoying this back and forth and so I'm going to put some additional stuff out there because this intrigues me:

"One of the elements of the current environment is, in addition to seemingly irrational rage, what I think of as faux rage."

I want to examine that statement more closely because I think it hits on something important while at the same time glossing over something that is equally important. The important part is "faux outrage". The phrase perfectly defines the art form. I think Clinton may have started this, but I am young enough to admit I might be mistaken.

Regardless, he operated in the Springtime of PC and could thus use "faux outrage" in a very effective way. Today's proponents take it to entirely new and absurd extremes as the whole "lipstick on a pig" thing shows (I think this may show we are reaching the autumn of PC).

The McCain campaign richly deserves to have the entire press come down on him hard for pushing this absurd notion. But the media doesn't do that because "faux outrage" seems to translate to real outrage (on both sides). And real outrage might further segment viewership and hurt ratings and credibility.

Which leads me to the glossed over part. The reason "faux outrage" works people up into "seemingly irrational rage" is not because rage/outrage in and of itself is rational, or irrational. It's the people who are enraged who are being either rational or irrational. Rage itself can be perfectly rational.

For instance, I'm enraged that Clinton got impeached for a BJ, but nothing ever happened to him when he ordered an aspirin factory bombed and killed hundreds of innocents. I'm outraged about Randy Weaver and David Koresh. I'm enraged that Clinton got away with doing 'extra-ordinary renditions'. I'm enraged that the Bush administration held American citizens without concern for habeas corpus. I'm enraged that billions have been wasted in Iraq (and I mean that literally and irrespective of whether the war was right or wrong, contractors have wasted billions there). I'm outraged at Monica Goodling and the politicization of the Justice Department. I could go on and on and on (and you know I can, I already have), but I think the point is that most of that rage is pretty rational.

But if some politician (*cough* Mike Gravel) were to articulate that rational rage, they would be condemned by all for their unhelpful tone and completely marginalized as a crank with anger management issues.

This is because our politicians and media know that the audience is not (sadly) made up of mostly rational people. The majority of people are irrational and would rather be told by the "faux outrage" peddlers when and why to get enraged and based on their party identification they'll know in black and white terms that their outrage is the outrage of the righteous.

If these folks were to allow rational outrage into their viewpoint, it would just confuse their political identities. Because a truly rational rage would know no party lines. It would be non-partisan. If the people saw that, it could rip away their comfortable Republican or Democrat masks and make them realize that perhaps I am not good and righteous simply by virtue of my party ID. That would not be good for morale and that's why there's no audience for rational rage.

And I think America is the poorer for it. IMO, we could use some Fightin' Bob LaFollettes and William Jennings Bryans spewing rational rage.

Will S. said...

I believe this essay may be of interest, Prof. Hunt. Mr. Nowicki has been thinking along similar lines.