The Left Dumbs DownWhen Rhetoric Replaces Sense I have been working on other projects and trying to kill a cold so not blogging for a few days.
American mid-term elections are read as everything from plebiscites to sideshows but the GOP's picking up seats in the House and Senate suggest that Bush is seen as relatively superior to the assorted voices of the Democratic Party.
Kristof's article suggests part of the reason. On Left and Right the rhetoric and invective have disconnected from any sense of the real world. Bush and Hillary certainly have their faults - but neither of them is evil incarnate.
Part of the problem is the desire on the part of television producers and pundits to create the appearance of conflict, the more visceral the better. Part of it is the willingness of people at the margins to believe that Vince Foster or Paul Wellstone were killed by shadow governments bent on pushing the interests of big oil (or whichever bad guy de jour comes to mind.)
I'd argue, however, that the reason the rhetoric has gone so far beyond any sort of reason is that the underlying commitment to civil society upon which the American and any other democracy must rely, has been badly eroded.
I can think of two reasons for this erosion: the ongoing culture wars between religious and secular American fundamentalists and the growing realization that the American hyper-power is no longer constrained by traditional balance of power politics.
The religious right and the virtue rats have spent two decades decrying the secular left and the libertarians. The battle is ongoing and, as the closeness of the mid-term elections suggests, neither side has gained much traction. Which encourages both sides to ratchet up their accusations.
Culture war is not about reasoned argument: it is about claiming bad faith, hidden agendas and duplicity. Each side believes the other capable of the very worst - up to and including full scale war for petty, partisan, political purpose. Increasingly, each side sees the other as heretical rather than simply wrong. And each side sees itself as the righteous defender of the American purpose. So long as both sides can get airtime by making outlandish claims about the actions and motives of the other they will keep doing it. Because both sides are perfectly convinced that, compared to the other, they have the Truth.
The second reason is that the stakes have immeasurably increased. America's power is increasing geometrically. TRW has a handy little laser which can shoot artillery shells out of the air. A remote controlled plane fired a missile and knocked off a key Al Qaeda operative. While the rest of the world cuts defense spending, the American military's budget increases and, critically, it does so without any apparent strain on the American economy.
Effectively the debates in America are now debates which effect the future of the world. Some Americans recognize this, others do not. But at the margins, the politically frenzied on right and left are acutely aware that who runs America matters far beyond her borders.
When you combine power with zealotry the best you can hope for is overblown rhetoric. The worst is the possibility that W's successor is the acceptable public face of one radical faction or another.
For the moment the overthrow of reason by passion seems simply aberrant. There remains adult supervision where it matters in all three branches of government; the dilemma for the next few years is how to ensure adults rather than children remain in charge.