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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Deconstruction of the nation

Robert V. Remini:  a chronicler of compromise as a political necessity.
During a recent election campaign, I stopped in at the printers to pick up some work they did for the party.  As I approached the service desk, I simply told the clerk "Brown County Democrats."  A woman behind me suddenly exploded with a sneering "Democrats!"  And she proceeded to rage with a litany of all the foul things she thought Democrats were,  none of which had any basis in fact, but were the features of some odious stereotype with which she lived.  The printer heard her and motioned me over to a side room, as he prepared the bill for the materials.  "No one who comes in here needs to be abused," he said.  We left the clerk behind the front desk to be the recipient of the woman's tirade.  

That encounter was indicative of what the media call the divisiveness that is rending the nation apart.  And it is not a unique instance, as people recount confrontations they experience over partisan politics constantly.  A pastor has told of the effects partisan politics has had within his church, and all the attempts to advise the congregation to put aside its partisan ideologies when they come to church fall on deaf ears.  He said people much prefer to  rage at each other than to quietly listen to the words of peace and conciliation from Christ.

However, that encounter also illustrates a gross misperception that the media advances.  The customary view advanced by news organizations is that national leaders shape the public attitudes and perceptions.   In fact, leaders feed on and serve the attitudes and notions they find in the public.  Occasionally, a leader occurs who inspires change in public attitudes, but most politicians try to shape themselves to fit the dominant public attitudes.  While Congress and the bureaucracy has its faults, the people ultimately determine who represents them and the character of the country.  At the present time, the USA suffers from some grave defects of character.  That woman at the printers portrays what America has become. 

The issue was raised in a recent Washington Post article headlined: 
Obama: The most polarizing president. Ever. 
The piece does qualify that headline with the assertion:  "While it’s easy to look at the numbers cited above [a Gallup Poll citing the growing polarization of the USA] and conclude that Obama has failed at his mission of bringing the country together, a deeper dig into the numbers in the Gallup poll suggests that the idea of erasing the partisan gap is simply impossible, as political polarization is rising rapidly."

Nevertheless, the article raised the ire of a staff member for the Senate Majority Leader whose rebuttal was published.  While he took exception to the thrust of the article, he conceded that events thwarted Obama in his quest for political comity:  "I guess the larger point that I am trying to make is that President Obama should not be blamed for the sharply polarized tone of the current political process because Republicans have made such an aggressive shift to the right. Or, put slightly differently, the President CAN be blamed for his unwillingness to go further to right than the American people are comfortable with — and for that he has been demonized and vilified by the right.

In the midst of the debate steps an old professor from the University of Illinois in Chicago who is a historian of the pre-Civil War era in American history.  I am acquainted with Prof. Remini who was featured this weekend on C-Span's BookTV in discussing his book At the Edge of Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union.  Dr. Remini, who has been historian for the U.S. House of Representatives, at the age of 91 is still an engaging speaker whose lectures are almost choreographed as he strolls back and forth on the stage engaging his audience.  His prefacing remarks stressed the point that Henry Clay shaped and concluded a compromise in the U.S. Senate that made it possible to preserve the union of the states and, therefore, the nation through and after the Civil War.  His point was that compromise is an essential tool of governing, but is not understood today.  Compromise is regarded as a surrender of values and principles, not the working out of solutions that conciliate differences, not require one group to subject itself to the demands of another.  As Prof. Remini points out, the U.S. Constitution is, in fact, the compilation of compromises on a number of sensitive points.   As the pastor observes about his congregation, the American people would rather rage at each other than find ways to accommodate each others interests and viewpoints and find ways to get along. 

The Washington Post article makes reference to a lengthy analysis of Obama's decision to shift from advocating comity to aggressive personal confrontation in his primary contest with Hillary Clinton.  The article, which has received much attention from serious students of politics, is by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker.  The Post article quotes this point by Lizza:

The Republican Party has drifted much farther to the right than the Democratic Party has drifted to the left. Jacob Hacker, a professor at Yale, whose 2006 book, ‘Off Center,’ documented this trend, told me, citing Poole and Rosenthal’s data on congressional voting records, that, since 1975, ‘Senate Republicans moved roughly twice as far to the right as Senate Democrats moved to the left’ and ‘House Republicans moved roughly six times as far to the right as House Democrats moved to the left.’” In other words, the story of the past few decades is asymmetric polarization.

Lizza goes on to cite a new book by Thomas Mann, of the bipartisan Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks:

 One of our two major parties, the Republicans, has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

Lizza concludes:

It would be hard for any President to reverse this decades-long political trend, which began when segregationist Democrats in the South—Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond—left the Party and became Republicans. Congress is polarized largely because Americans live in communities of like-minded people who elect more ideological representatives. Obama’s rhetoric about a nation of common purpose and values no longer fits this country: there really is a red America and a blue America.

As a new President, Obama did not anticipate how effectively his political opponents would cast him as a polarizing figure.

David Brooks in The New York Times takes up the issue of the nation's polarization, which he calls the "great divorce," as he recounts another book on the subject,   Coming Apart by Charles Murray.  Brooks says:

The word “class” doesn’t even capture the divide Murray describes. You might say the country has bifurcated into different social tribes, with a tenuous common culture linking them.

Murray’s story contradicts the ideologies of both parties. Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.

Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent. The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.

Among those who study and think about politics, there is, then, a growing consensus that does, in fact, cross party lines that the country is dividing itself again along lines not seen since the Civil War.  The trend as noted puts the 2012 election in a much different light than choosing who will preside over the country.  All the authors cited above see the preservation of the nation as what is at stake.  So, the question inevitably arises as to who, if anyone, can lead the nation back into a functional unity.

I will further heap the majority of the blame, as the writers cited above do, on the Republican Party and those it serves.  The people who have put on the primary campaigns and debates this month have clearly disqualified themselves as having any interest in mediating the concerns of the country.  The primary process did eliminate an alarming dingbat caucus from its ranks as Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain dropped out of contention, after demonstrating uncanny inabilities to handle facts.   But those who remain have put on "debate" performances, campaign appearances, and advertising onslaughts that make the sleaziest of the television reality shows look like high culture.   Does anyone who really cares for the country want anyone who operates on this intellectual and moral level to run the nation?

That would seem to leave Obama as the only option.   Ryan Lizza takes an optimistic view:

Obama promised to transcend forty years of demographic and ideological trends and reshape Washington politics. In the past three years, though, he has learned that the Presidency is an office uniquely ill-suited for enacting sweeping change. Presidents are buffeted and constrained by the currents of political change. They don’t control them.

Obama didn’t remake Washington. But his first two years stand as one of the most successful legislative periods in modern history. Among other achievements, he has saved the economy from depression, passed universal health care, and reformed Wall Street. Along the way, Obama may have changed his mind about his 2008 critique of Hillary Clinton. “Working the system, not changing it” and being “consumed with beating” Republicans “rather than unifying the country and building consensus to get things done” do not seem like such bad strategies for success after all.

But Lizza's article contains a huge cautionary note.  That note is in the account of Obama revived his campaign against Hillary Clinton by going on the personal attack:  the "campaign was entirely a character attack on Hillary as a liar and untrustworthy. It wasn’t an ‘issue contrast,’ it was entirely personal.   And, of course, it worked."

Of course, it worked.  And that is the caveat about bringing any unity to a country so bitterly divided.  When political strategists are questioned about negative personal campaigns, they always reply, they work. The fact that ad hominem campaigns work says much more about the declination of the electorate than about the shrewdness of the strategists.  A possible majority of the people either do not possess the level of literacy that allows them to understand the fallacies in negative, personal attacks or their political choice is simply not to care.

If Obama allows himself to get drawn into the kind of campaign being put on by Romney and Gingrich,  the intellectual and moral loss will devastate the nation.  If he does not participate in the kind of pandering dissembling of Willard Romney, he may well lose the election.  But at least he would preserve some element of human integrity that a segment of the population might use to rebuild their lives in other circumstances.  And we can study the examples of conciliation put forth by people like Professor Remini. 

The Occupy movement remains as the most positive political force, despite the fact it has been infiltrated by some violent and criminal elements.  The nature of the divide in the nation is one that is headed for the viciousness and violence of the French Revolution.  The Occupy people who have shown a peaceful but persistent civil disobedience offer a way to deconstruct the nation, if that becomes necessary, gently and without the violent fury of those who seek power and domination over other people.

The current campaign within the Republican Party has revived Obama as a symbol of hope.  The arguments over health care, deficits, regulation, and wars are insignificant from the perspective of whether the union is to be maintained.

For people like the woman at the printers who tried to confront me, the union probably does not matter.  She is a reminder that whoever gets elected this November is irrelevant.  It's the people who will make the decision whether this nation is to continue or finally give up the great experiment in democracy and concede its failure. 


Bob Newland said...

When a president promises repeatedly to end the arrests of cannabis users and dispensary operators who are following state law, and then, instead, accelerates arrests of those people, he can hardly expect to quell polarization.

John said...

First: The election - ignore it or just read about it at a distance to spend time on things that matter. Presidential elections boil down to 13 keys, according to Professor Lichtman. He correctly predicted the winner of the popular vote in presidential elections since the 1980s (include Gore's).

Second: yes the long-term worldwide trend is state dissolution. Since the 1990s people created 26 new nations. The world has more nations that at anytime in history. Even Scotland precedes to democratic votes to leave the imploding not-so United Kingdom. This spinning off new nations: USSR, Denmark, Sudan, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, etc., is remarkable in light of the new world corporate order attempting to homogenize cultures through the English (business) language and media consolidation and controls. Since all politics is local it is helpful to analyze and understand regional ethnic diaspora through our North American experience. Colin Woodward's, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. His book helps us understand why the Dakotas should be east and west - not north and south; why the Pacific coast votes blue while inland Washington, Oregon, and Northern California vote red (and against their own interests). He defines the fault lines in North American regional cultures. Whether they erupt remains a work in progress.

John said...

Dr. Remini has one aspect very correct; whereas Chris Hedges has another very clearly wrong.

Hedges alleges that politics is the art of compromise- nothing could be further from the truth. Politics is imposing your will upon those in opposition to your will. Candidates never run claiming to be the great compromisor, ready to give away or erode a principle or position. Rather politicians run, claiming to impose their version of events on the electorate and vilify those who cave in to other alternatives. Karl von Clauswitz was correct declaring that, "war is merely policy through other means." (We've recently learned that "economics" is substitutable for war in CVC's treatise.) Politics and imposition of policy is at its core imposing ones will on an opponent or enemy.

Remini is correct that compromise is imperative for civil governance. And that is the rub. Very few if any of our modern politicians are statesmen. Rather they act as politicians from the Machiavellian model obsessed with imposing their will (for better or worse) and less with solving problems and moving on - for which compromise is imperative. They are incapable or unwilling to see or exercise the difference between politics and governance.

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