I can’t watch it anymore. The verbal blood fest which is the Republican campaign for the presidential nomination I find nauseating. The name-calling, demagoguery, scapegoating and the shameless xenophobia mark a new low in modern electoral politics. It is more fitted for the junior high school playground than a race that should evince the best in statesmanship, civic-mindedness, and thoughtful policy positions. It’s sickening and dangerous. The 24/7 news cycle gives it a sizzle that its content does not deserve. One can only imagine what it augurs for the future of our nation. I grasp for some consolation in the thought that the Roman Empire survived for centuries with crazy emperors at the top in great measure because at lower levels it was sustained by a solid and well-functioning civil service. But admittedly this is small consolation.
How did we get to this point? How did an appeal to intelligence come to be replaced by pandering to anti-intellectualism, base emotions and demagoguery? There are many explanations which in complex ways feed into the disintegration of political discourse we currently witness.
Let’s start with the Republican Party. A place to look is with the so-called southern strategy, which began with Goldwater campaign in 1964 and was refined by Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972. The strategy was designed to flip the South for the Republican Party, which had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War. The Civil Rights Movement was the catalyst, and by signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Lyndon Johnson himself noted that South would thereafter be lost to the Democrats. The strategy stoked the racial fears and prejudices of white southerners with appeals to “states’ rights” and “law and order,” coded terms pointing to the growing encroachment of blacks into white society. With the Southern strategy politics turned from articulating principled positions to manipulating emotions and pandering to base fears. This approach was reinforced by Ronald Reagan who campaigned defending states’ rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi, not far from the place where three civil rights workers had been slain. Again, it was an appeal to race, with states’ rights as a stand in for the way things were before integration. And who can forget the campaign of George H. W. Bush and the infamous Willie Horton ad? It was around this time that the moniker “pointy-headed liberal” came into vogue, thus transforming an honored-concept descriptive of Jefferson or FDR into an identity that was virtually un-American. Add to this the maligning of “East Coast intellectuals” and with it the disparaging of education and intelligence. The stage was set for campaigning not based on policy debate but on whom you want to have a beer with. A candidate’s appeal is no longer based on his intelligence, his or her grasp of difficult issues or even experience, but on whether he or she projects a strong personality and can verbally subdue adversaries or those holding contrary views. We were well on our way to a politics based on anathematizing the other, a politics that appealed to emotions above principles, policies and reasoned judgement.
Playing the race card fomented a political culture marked by stark divisions, polarities, and flaming passions which have characterized the American culture wars. It has pitted liberals vs. conservatives, divided not only over matter of race, but of religion as well. Whatever the culture wars may be, they have not created an environment that honors nuance, intellectual sophistication or a spirit of compromise. Rather, the political soil is rich in anti-intellectualism and small-mindedness.
Much of the culture wars have centered on issues such as prayer in the schools, abortion, sexual mores, including gay rights, the role of and status of women, with conservatives claiming the mantle of piety, while denigrating the putative licentiousness of liberals. Much of the attack on the right has come from politicized evangelicals who re-entered the political arena in the late 70s, with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. The re-emergence of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the political arena, which has occasioned a tectonic shift of American politics far to the right, was ignited when the federal government deprived white, segregated, private academies of their tax-exempt status, ironically under the presidency of Jimmy Carter, himself a born-again Christian. These academies grew up in response to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision which mandated the integration of public schools. Thus we witness the unholy bond of racism and religion. And evangelical religion is based on faith and not on evidence or reason. Its triumphant hold on politics is apiece with our political descent into anti-intellectualism. It also equates one’s religious identity, and his or her putative piety, with one’s Americanism, despite the Constitutional ban on a religious test for public office.
And so we have the culture wars, which deflate political discourse to matters of identity and which sow the seeds of division resisting mediation by reasoned argument. Most distressing –and dangerous-is that facts have little to do with political allegiance for wide swaths of the American public. Our political discourse has become unhinged from reality.
My point is that the culture wars of the past 35 years, among other dynamics, have created the conditions which have allowed for and propelled the emergence of demagoguery in the highest echelons of American politics. Question we are compelled to ask is, where can we look for hope? What must we do to restore sanity, civility and intelligence to our politics?