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Venomous politics

  • January 10th, 2011

Many in the the US are arguing over whether venomous polititical language of Sarah Palin and other Tea Partiers might have prompted a madman's shooting of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Whether or not there is a direct connection will not be determined by debate. But I share the dislike of vitriolic descriptions of Obama and his colleagues. I too deplore language that normalises ascribing evil or treasonous motives to Democrats in government.

I fear there is a connection between the venom in public conversation and the paralysis that is preventing the US from tackling its chronic deficit and other sypmptoms of speedy national decline. The language however is not the problem – it is a symptom of the problem (though there is probably a feedback loop).

The problem is the evolution of politics as "tribalism", the division of the polity into Montagues and Capulets, with all the 'no holds barred' enmities that eat up societies absorbed in exploring and highlighting their differences instead of what they share.

"Tribal" loyalties have always been a grave risk for democracies where voting is along racial or tribal or religious lines. Such  democracies may only survive, let alone thrive, if they can elevate common nationalism, preferably with a genuine external enemy, or keep political supremacy out of the hands of 'genuine' representatives of the majority and in the hands of a 'philosopher king' elite or with a growing and increasingly wealthy middle class whose interests transcend the tribal distinctions.

The left tried for a century to turn class differences into a robust tribal voting affiliation but the vertical economic mobility engendered by Anglo capitalism undermined them throughout that century.  That experience may have lead us to think there is something inevitable in the cleansing and unifying tendencies of democracy. We see as anomalous the ballot box success of Hitler in Weimar Germany, of Peronism in Argentina, of many other unpleasant regimes (Venezuela, Pakistan, indeed much of the democratic world). Perhaps the US is showing us now how fragile is that confidence.

Graduate demococracy depends on putting what we share, our common objectives and values, above those we do not share.  It requires committment to the view that the ends do not justify the means.  No matter how strongly one feels about the purposes and the values of one's democratic foes, there are strategies and responses that are unthinkable. Obviously we may not kill or incarcerate opponents in order to prevail.

But that is not enough as a bottom line. There must also be a common consensus to ensure that foes can not triumph  by corrupting and misusing other coercive powers. It may be enough for bad currency to drive out good if politicians can persistently succeed by lying about their opponents. 

I wonder how long a healthy democracy can last if there are too few willing to defend values that are even less absolute than that. Ideally we would see our political competitors as fellow citizens, less than family but more  than just other humans. We would have good reason to assume that they justify being treated as we would want them to treat us, as indeed honourable, probably misguided but nevertheless worthy of our respect in office, and of our charity when needed.

I'm reminded of a conversation last August in California with a Stanford political science professor. Jack N Rakove is an expert in the debate over the tussle between the strict constructionists on the US Supreme Court and the judicial activists. He won a Puliitzer Prize in 1997 for "Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution".

I enjoy Fox News. I told Jack I like the penetration engendered by its relative absence of political correctness. His reaction confimed that I was dealing with a tribal liberal. So I asked a question that I've been meaning to ask for many months. "Why do US intellectuals now rarely write about the US government, or US government policy. Instead they write about the acts of the  "Clinton Administration" or the "Bush Administration" or the "Obama Administration". I asked him if I was correct to see this as a conscious or subconscious distancing of the writers from their own government, the intellectuals' version of deniability.

The conversation drew in other Stanford people at the barbeque.  One thought it was necessary to distance oneself as an American from the actions of their governments , because they had been so profoundly wrong for so long. I asked if there was anything left of the tradition of bipartisanship on foreign affairs (contention within but unity to foreigners). Another said Bush had made that impossible.

When I mentioned  that the Fox guests' hostility to Obama seemed to me no more unpleasant than the ritual contempt for the Bushes that poured out of liberal organs, and that our narrow and unpleasant broadcasters could always find US intellectuals to vent bile toward the Bushes, the conversation became stilted. Jack Rakove ventured the view that this partisanship was not new, that perhaps there had always been a US scholarship convention of referring to their own government as the [President] Administration.

I think not. I do not recall it is the normal way scholars referred to foreign actions of the government of the Roosevelt era, or the Eisenhower or Johnson or Kennedy era. I think it became more of a habit to them as they tried to distance themselves from the democratic majority opinion during the presidencies of Nixon and Reagan.

Further, I fear that we in New Zealand suffer from the same underlying sickness, comprehensively masked at present because we have a decent and intelligent leader in John Key. His influence makes it hard to prosper politically at present with overblown rhetoric and nasty lies.

We should remember how much mileage Winston Peters gets, and how natural it seemed only a few years ago to have a leader who characterised her opponent (Brash) as "cancerous" and insulted the US President, and whipped up a political pogrom against the Brethren, and perverted electoral law to excuse the diversion of $800k of public money then changed the law to knobble 'third party" campaigning against her.

We are lucky indeed that those in National who would have responded in kind were fewer and much less influential than Key's key people.  Who in Labour can we count on for that committment when the cycle next turns?



"But I share the dislike of vitriolic descriptions of Obama and his colleagues. I too deplore language that normalises ascribing evil or treasonous motives to Democrats in government."
You're post actually makes quite a bit of sense but you started off on the wrong foot with me there. It seems to me that you are allowing the left to set the terms of the debate, and have forgotten their recent treatment of George Bush. Much more venomous and destructive than anything Obama has had to suffer.

As a potential and past politician, you need to up your game. Unless you are happy to remain subjugated by the cultural Marxists that is. For myself, I'd much prefer to see things swing a long long way back in the other direction.

Staus quo just is not good enough anymore.


"Your post"
I hate these little boxes.

  • mike mckee
  • January 14th, 2011
  • 7:00 pm

I have no sympathy for the trendy lefties around, think the left are far more vitriolic and vicious against Palin and crowd than they (Palin) are to the left.
This is the same as blaming the police for deaths on police chases.
If the left didn’t run roughshod over everyone and behave undemocratically then Palin et all would have no ammo!

  • rufus
  • January 17th, 2011
  • 8:29 am

Great post.  I share your concerns.  Politics is being marred by much hate and vitriol these days.  I sincerely hope that National will maintain a higher standard, and encourage their "opponents" to do likewise.  I was ashamed to have the last lot as my representatives.


<em>whether venomous political language of Sarah Palin and other Tea Partiers</em>
There's where things go off the rails.  Accepting from one side that the political language of Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers is venomous in the first place.  Often such comments are ascribed to people without them having said anything of the sort.  For example, I read a review of Sarah Palin's recent speech which described the entire tone of the speech "attacking".  Having listened to the speech, and then reading a few other articles by the same journalist, it quickly became evident that the tone of everything they wrote about Sarah was always "attacking" and they rely on most people not bothering to verify the claims to accept their opinion as fact.
Then there is proportionality.  At a Tea Party rally, the media (well the leftist ones) reporting the evident focused on a couple of banners out of many to hype their claims of "vitriol", which was a little over the top.  At a Jon Stewart "Rally for Sanity" they marvel to the "sensible" banners that are not attacking enyone or engaging in cheap political rhetoric, thus ignoring the many others such as "Tea Parties are only for mad hatters". 
As RB said, many examples of the left engaging in the same behaviour they accuse of the right.  It's not the political rhetoric they want to stop, it's simply allowing other opinions to be aired.
The Tea Party objectives are far less radical than the American Constitution was in its day.  What is radical is that they are being castigated for wanting to ensure the constitution is upheld and government doesn't over reach its mandate and ultimately bankrupt the country and destroy its core values.

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