29 February 2012: History repeats itself in politics

History repeats itself in politics

Part II of a series on the polarization of the American political process.

I concluded last week’s column on the reasons people arrive at diametrically opposing political positions with University of Virginia social psychology professor Jonathan Haidt’s declaration that compromise has become a “dirty word.”

Haidt tells Bill Moyers, “When it gets so that your opponents are not just people you disagree with, but when it gets to the mental state in which I am fighting for good, and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to compromise.”

His statement gets to the heart of our adversarial system as designed by our Founders; but because of the polarization of our political process, compromise, the outcome one would hope of every legislative deal-making process, is no longer acceptable.

In an interview with Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes, Speaker of the House John Boehner rigidly resisted uttering it.

“When you say the word compromise, a lot of Americans look up and go, ‘oh, oh, they’re going to sell me out,’” said Boehner.

Contrarily, “a lot of Americans” don’t think that, but a vociferous minority, the true-believers, does.

When Stahl pressed him with “Why won’t you say– you’re afraid of the word,” Boehner emphatically and contemptuously replied, “I reject the word.”

Haidt frames his argument in context of how conservative Baby Boomers such as Boehner view the world in a stark dualism: good v. evil. Haidt calls that proclivity “Manichaean thinking,” referencing the third-century cult, condemned by the Church, which espoused that philosophy.

Haidt, however, need not reach back nearly two millennia; American history offers a more contemporary and relevant example: McCarthyism.

During the 1950s, responsible Republicans stood with President Eisenhower against their party’s angry, lunatic fringe led by Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-WI) whose name is synonymous with that dark period. Eisenhower was a pragmatic conservative who did not demean his opponents nor suspect or accuse them of consorting with the enemy.

Today, it’s juxtaposed: Eisenhower Republicans—derisively labeled RINOs—have been expelled from the fold and in their place those cast out have been welcomed back like prodigal sons. Their power is felt.

In his classic work The Crucible, Arthur Miller uses the Salem witch trials as an analogy for McCarthyism. The wilderness beyond Salem is a metaphor for the modern world outside of America’s ken: “dark and brooding” where “tribes marauded” and “the last place on earth not paying homage to god.”

The threat from the outside—Indians then, communists more recent, and “radical Islamists” today—effects change within the community itself. Thus, McCarthyism cannot be considered solely in context of its witch-hunt for those perceived to be giving aid and comfort to the enemy; it also needs to be seen for its insistence of cultural conformity, another way of saying “traditional values.”

1950’s television, including Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, and The Rifleman, depicts a patriarchal America where women and minorities know their places and men are straight, brave, courageous, and bold like Wyatt Earp. I picture Boehner dressed in his cowpoke outfit with a toy pistol in a strapped-on holster glued to a black-and-white, rabbit-eared TV, munching Cracker Jacks and sipping Coca-Cola with neighborhood pals Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.

The Puritans created a theocracy, observes Miller, “to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction.” The witch-hunt became a product of paranoid fear because “organization must be grounded on the idea of exclusion and prohibition.” Think of the incessant attacks upon Barack Obama’s Americanism and xenophobic fear of immigrants and Muslims.

Security of the established power structure is not threatened by outside forces; in fact, it is reinforced. Internal opposition, on the other hand, poses a real threat.

“The witch-hunt was a perverse manifestation of the panic,” writes Miller, “which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom.” Consider the ongoing attacks on women’s health and entrenched resistance to equal protection for gays and lesbians.

To the chagrin of George Santayana, history is repeating itself because we fail to learn from it, and second-half Boomers, those born post 1954, are among its worst offenders.

They turned 18 in 1973, the magical year: the draft—Selective Service—effectively ended and Roe v. Wade was enshrined into constitutional law.

Thereon, military service for men is merely a choice. Men are neither burdened with a sense of duty to defend their country nor with a fear of having their lives disrupted by being drafted.

For women, reproductive freedom and workplace rights, albeit under continual assault from the right, are far more recognized. More on that, though, in a future column.

Next week: how the homogenization of American communities has contributed to our polarization.

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