Summer Book Report
|My Summer Book Report|
…or How history taught me to be impressed by today’s Republicans, but not in a good way
Without any particular design, I have consumed an oddly large amount of American history this summer. It’s not the most obvious thing for a person who has recently moved from China to France. Nor would I have advertised any prior passion for history. Regardless, the unintended immersion has been compelling, for someone despondent about American politics, and long removed from the U.S. as “home”.
Superficially, the dose of history has been reassuring because it shows the current partisan struggles in their appropriate context. The fights have been worse in the past, the partisanship nastier, the disunity more thorough, and, frankly, the stakes higher. We are not, after all, fighting for the survival of a fragile union and for the abolition of slavery in an environment that makes either cause look hopeless. Our little country has faced just such dark times, more than once, and survived championing, ultimately, the side of light.
On a slightly deeper level, both the post-Revolution and Civil War-era periods about which I’ve been reading point up the fundamental character of the fiercest debates in our history, and show current arguments to be unoriginal re-stagings of some of the same essential questions—today’s versions, however, lacking the poetic language of prior eras. If we have lost the grandiose wording, however, I can at least console myself that we are not in an era when it is acceptable to hire newspaper editors to publish partisan lies for political profit, as no less a man than Thomas Jefferson did to undermine John Adams.
Still, I can’t help but watch the current campaign and wish for better. To say the elections of 1796 and 1800 had the same partisan rancor and duplicitous tactics we see in 2004 is simply to say we have made little headway in our mode of politics. As a student of rhetoric, perhaps this shouldn’t surprise me, but it does disappoint.
My despair on these subjects is not abstract, of course, but specific. As someone who is opposed to many of the policies of the Bush administration, I am in awe of its rhetorical effectiveness. Even while not a single member of the senior staff is a compelling individual communicator, we are witnessing a master-class in the execution of wildly astute communication strategy. While it is a demonstrably effective mode of communication, however, it makes me personally angry: be plain-spoken, but do not speak plainly.
The gambit that has proved most fruitful to the administration is the one that seems most fancifully doomed to failure at first blush: say one thing, but do the opposite. It is a basic principle of communication theory that when we see actions and words contradict one another, we will interpret the actions as the clearer reflection of true intent and belief. This bedrock principle clearly doesn’t carry over to the realm of mass communication without profound codicils.
This administration contradicts its words with its actions often, yet maintains the faith of nearly half the population. It claims to be pro-military, but has cut combat pay and decimated veterans’ benefits including health care. Proclaiming no child left behind, it has eviscerated the programs specifically aimed at the least well-off students. It claims moral high ground, then double-speaks about whether it knew or didn’t know profoundly important facts about which it earlier claimed not just empirical certainty, but imperative moral authority. It bases its remit on the need to fight terror, yet acts in ways that specifically incite terrorists. The President, himself, campaigned on his compassion and his ability to unite—“I’m a uniter, not a divider”—but has made neither a feature of his presidency.
In this narrow sense, Republicans were close to the mark in drawing comparisons between George Bush and Ronald Reagan, during recent tributes to the latter. The Reagan administration successfully convinced Americans it was doing the right thing for the country even as it pursued policies most Americans didn’t support. Dissimilarly, however, Reagan was a pleasure to listen to. Ronnie remained personally popular even though he was caught, more than once, at photo ops in front of popular public projects whose funding he had recently cut, or ad-libbing fancies like his ability to recall launched ICBMs.
On a personal level, however, watching the Bush administration makes me think of Bill Clinton more than it does of Ronald Reagan. I am no great fan Clinton’s, and for a simple reason: I dislike being lied to. I find it just that history will remember him for a semen-stained dress as much as anything else. I find it just, however, not because I am offended by his extra-curricular use of the Oval Office, but because he lied about it when confronted. Until then, his offence had been against his wife and his intern. After that, it was dishonesty to the people who elected him. Neither was defensible, but the latter was a lie to me. That Bill Clinton was caught in a personal lie was his downfall. That it was a lie about sex just made it a better news story.
What today’s incumbents understand well is that, while individual dishonesty like Clinton’s is prosecutable, misleading the public with artful communications is not. How we can know so much about what was known, and its contradiction with what was claimed, and its contradiction with what was done, yet hold the Chief Executive unburdened by it all? If links to terrorists don’t exist, and weapons of mass destruction are absent, how is it that the American people continue, apparently, to support a President who led them to war on these causes? Either he knew, and lied—in which case both the lie and his alternate motive demand the public’s wrath—or he was both incompetent in his judgment of incomplete evidence and guilty of overstating his certainty in taking the nation to war.
Instead, we blamed another man, against whom there was never any proof. By the time our forces rolled into Iraq, a majority of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was linked to the 9/11 attacks. The Bush administration’s communication effectiveness has to be admired, even if it is also loathed.
Still, while the administration’s communication strategy has shielded the President from the most direct kinds of prosecution, the issues are still hot. Complete escape from them has eluded Mr Bush like a polysyllabic word. And, so, now, the campaign is about “values”.
Growing up, I believed that the most fundamental American values were the rights and freedoms canonized in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. I further believed that the role of American government was to protect those freedoms, and promote the well-fare of The People, and, where these two were seen to conflict, to err always on the side of leaving Citizens to make their own choices.
Well, I know that’s how it was conceived. I have been grateful to my recent reading of history to reconfirm this view, which might otherwise be called overly romantic. How extraordinary a thing it was, at the birth of the United States, to imagine a government crafted from definitions on the limits of its power. Even the Constitutional framers new this would be harder to sustain than it was to conceive. We’re proving them right.
The current administration and government, with the passage of the hypocritically named Patriot Act, did as much to infringe Americans’ freedom from their own government and extend the borders of governmental power as did the reviled Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798 or the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Cold War: Under a flag-wrapped premise, to take from the People their freedom under the guise of protecting it.
This casual approach to protecting rights and freedoms doesn’t only affect Americans. With its treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and its solicitation of legal advice to obviate the Geneva Convention, the United States is no longer, in the eyes of much of the world, a lighthouse of human freedom that can shine with moral authority into the dark places on the planet. When President Bush speaks of protecting freedom, I genuinely don’t know what definition of “free” he invokes.
I am convinced, nevertheless, that the men and women in this administration want greatness for the United States. It is hard to explain the extremes of their actions in many other ways. (I am impatient with liberal arguments that their funneling of riches to friends is proof of nefariousness. Not only do all administrations do this, but members of this administration would see no incompatibility between securing the Nation’s future and enriching their own.) I am even certain they believe their actions to be vital steps in a grand design to create a lasting American hegemony.
None of this bothers me. Those aims, while I would argue their virtue, are politically legitimate from one point of view, albeit a dangerously nationalistic one. What burns at me is that the American people are not being given the opportunity to choose this course over alternatives. If this administration has an ennobling vision of this American future for which its actions and policies are necessary prerequisites, we are not being told about it.
While in most things I am an optimist, in this I am a cynic. I believe the Republican political machine has mastered an effective communications strategy that conceals a possibly legitimate but unpopular cause (ie, centralization of power and American geo-political dominance), while marketing a more popular and just-as-legitimate one (ie, safety and freedom). In short, it has de-coupled its political agenda from its political message.
Current policies clearly reflect a move to increasing the power of the central government, and to increasing US intervention in global affairs. Yet voters will not be offered choices on these continua. Instead, they will be sold a bill of goods advertised on attributes far removed in the mind from either. The slogans will be about values, about constancy, about safety, about “liberalism” and “conservatism” (defined in innovative ways) and about truck like gay marriage.
In short, I dislike the current administration for the same reason I ended up disliking Clinton: I don’t trust it to tell me the truth about what it’s doing in the Oval Office. The difference is that I care more about the tactics they are using to achieve their ends—whatever those ends may be—than I ever cared about one egotist’s genitals.
All of this angers me as a conservative. And it angers me as a liberal. And it particularly angers me that I’m supposed to have to choose one of those two identities and stick by it as though it were a party platform, rather than a stance one would take on a particular issue. To whole-heartedly embrace the biases of one end of the political spectrum or the other is to see the world in terms that manifestly do not exist.
I lament, however, that determining the unique course of one’s heart and mind across a complex of issues is hard work, and it appears to be work unappealing to the majority of Americans. We are more polarized than ever before in my lifetime. We have been seduced, at the hands of economies-of-scale communications, to say we are either one thing or another. The message must be simple or it will not travel. And the simplest possible message is based on dichotomy.
It is for this reason that I fear the current administration will be re-elected. It plays the dichotomy game better. It is better at dividing the world up into two parts and challenging which side you’re on. Either you have “values” or you’re amoral; either you’re a patriot or you’re against the war; either you’re for assault weapons or you’re for gay marriage, and so on.
(I secretly fantasize about some clever couple of gay lawyers agitating for their relationship to be re-classified as an assault weapon, thereby earning both the protection of the Constitution and the supportive lobbying might of the NRA.)
Indeed, one’s ability to be cast stalwartly for or against any issue is being made a centerpiece issue in this election. We are told our President is constant: while his opponent flip-flops on issues, President Bush does not. He has consistently believed that attacking Iraq was the right thing to do. It was right because Iraq supported Al Queda. Or, if that proved to be wrong, because it had weapons of mass destruction. Or, if that proved to be wrong, because its people had to be freed from a terrible dictatorship…even though North Korea and Pakistan fit the same description and have weapons of mass destruction, they’re not quite as easy to defeat. In short, constancy is apparently noble even if you’re completely, demonstrably wrong.
President Bush, then, is a markedly different kind of man than President Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln’s greatest legacy to the Nation is a flip-flop: on slavery. Lincoln was ardently opposed to emancipation as a candidate, and then as President. Historians argue whether his change of heart on the issue was motivated by moral epiphany or political expediency. In either case, it was a huge risk, political and practical, about which no-one was sure of the consequences. Regardless, he did change his mind, went back on his word, and against his earlier policy, and freed the people of the United States: those who had been slaves, and the rest of the population, which had been yoked to the system of slavery. Lincoln was a Republican, and a flip-flopper, thank God, and perhaps the greatest President the nation has ever seen.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans can really claim to be constant in the face of challenge. Both parties are guilty of simply failing to approach the truth head-on. Both skew. But in the dichotomy game, Democrats tend toward professing what we wish were true. Republicans tend to lean on what we fear is true.
This is precisely why I doubt John Kerry will succeed in November. Hope is a less powerful mobilizer than fear. It is easier to paint a picture of what people don’t want—and don’t want to become—than it is to sell a vision of hope that will connect both universally and personally. Fear sounds real; hope sounds vague.
But the Democrats, not wanting to appear over-focused on the negative, have been forced into a rhetorical cul de sac. It happens to be one I like—appealing to the better angels of our nature—but that doesn’t make it an effective election weapon. To avoid the appearance of being as negative as their opponents, the Democrats are attempting to take the high road of hope in a bright future, downplaying—though it be a thin veil—their anti-anything sentiments.
It will be a bright day for political rhetoric if it works, but I rather think it will have the effect of emasculating the party in what is already shaping up as a contest of macho posturing. I prefer the high road with all my heart, but I do not think it will lead to the desired destination in the months ahead.
As both parties decry negativism and pessimism, ironically accusing each other of it by turns, I wish the Democrats would remember this lesson from the origins of the nation: Inciting the People to depose abuses of power works. It is the motivational force enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the proudest moments of American history.
And it is hardly devoid of hope. Toppling the unjust was the founding notion of our nation. It is the starting point of all American political mythology and romance: the rejection of something bad in order to form a more perfect union.
The Democrats, in choosing a gentler approach, have chosen, I believe, against the likelihood of being the party to guide the next chapter of American history.
My summer reading and viewing have included Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers, about the period immediately following the constitutional debates of 1793, a collection of essays by Daniel Boorstin, covering a smattering of episodes from pre-revolution to long after, the Constitution of the United States of America, and Ken Burns’ Civil War on DVD.