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Old 10-07-2009, 01:30 PM   #1
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Gladiatorial politics

FT.com / Columnists / Clive Crook - An American polity blinded by rage

By Clive Crook
October 4 2009

Last week, in his column in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman broached a subject that nags at many Americans. “I have no problem with any of the substantive criticism of President Obama from the right or left,” he wrote. “But something very dangerous is happening. Criticism from the far right has begun tipping over into delegitimation and creating the same kind of climate here that existed in Israel on the eve of the Rabin assassination.”

Increasingly, rage is the dominant mood of US politics – but the feeling is not confined to the far right. Committed partisans on both sides question their opponents’ legitimacy. It is one thing for an adversary to be mistaken, quite another to be a liar or traitor. You do not argue with an opponent like that, or seek an accommodation. You silence him, you shout him down, you impeach.

Right-wing “birthers” question whether Mr Obama was born in the US and can lawfully be president. Their leftwing counterparts think George W. Bush stole the 2000 election, then permitted the attacks of 9/11 to justify his war against Iraq and the creation of a police state. Conservatives deride Mr Obama’s healthcare plan as a plot to turn the US socialist. Liberals, led by former president Jimmy Carter, no less, suggest that much of the opposition to Mr Obama is mere racism.

On substance, there is no discussion. Opponents’ views are not worth examining; bad faith goes without saying. In effect, each side questions the other’s right to participate.To repeat, this is an attitude of the politically committed, not representative of the country as a whole. Indeed, most Americans’ disgust at the relentless anger and ill will helps to explain their disenchantment with politics.

Polls show that the electorate holds an ever lower opinion of Congress, the cockpit of this struggle. They continue to show that Mr Obama is more popular than his policies – suggesting a taste for the consensual post-partisan politics that the president still says he seeks, even if his policies make one wonder if he means it. This also suggests, incidentally, that racism is not a significant influence: if it were, Mr Obama would be less popular than his policies, not more.

US politics has always been turbulent and ill-tempered. The culture war between left and right is hardly new. Yet the anger does seem to be rising. The bipartisan government that Mr Obama promised – and the middle of the country voted for – looks ever less likely. The question is, does it matter?

On this, left and right are as one. Bipartisanship is bunk. The soppy centre is no use. Good government is not just splitting the difference; it is splitting the heads of the enemy, and getting your way without compromise. We floating voters see things differently. We approve of consensual politics, thinking that it delivers better policies. And we believe this for two main reasons.

First, good policy involves trade-offs. In the farther reaches of left and right, these are forbidden. For the left, there could never be a reason to lower taxes on the rich. To improve incentives? No, the less you tax the rich, the richer they become and the lazier they can afford to be. For the right, there could never be a reason to raise taxes on the rich. To reduce public borrowing? No, have you not heard of the Laffer curve? Cut taxes for the rich and revenues will increase. The trade-offs that good policy requires can be properly discussed only in the political centre.

Second, good policy requires stability. Though Democrats apparently find this hard to imagine, they will not always control the White House and both chambers of Congress. Measures that infuriate the other side – remember the Bush tax cuts? – can be reversed. Policy that lurches to and fro is damaging. Consensual politics means smaller fluctuations.

For many years, relative stability was a marked feature of US politics – as compared, say, with Britain. And this surely worked to America’s advantage. Perhaps US politics is starting to look more like postwar British politics. If so, it is safe to say that the country will not like the results.

But one wonders whether even more may be at stake than the capacity to form sound and steady policy. So inflamed are the US political classes that a deeper breakdown begins to be imaginable.

Historically, the US has both accommodated and benefited from a remarkable degree of cultural pluralism – with sufficient civic tolerance, mutual (if sometimes grudging) respect and unashamed patriotism to bind the whole together. Now, more than ever, the instinct of politicians and their energised supporters is to divide. Mr Obama seemed to promise a corrective, but that hope is fading. Old and new media, obsessed with gladiatorial politics, offer no remedy. They either take sides or act as fight promoters; in any event they worsen the polarisation and leave the centre unserved. The internet’s echo chambers stir brainless anger and push the poles still further apart.

In the coming years, the US has enormous challenges to face – not least, like Britain before it, the trauma of relative economic decline. Right now, its polity looks unfit to cope. “A house divided against itself”, said Abraham Lincoln, “cannot stand.”
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Old 10-07-2009, 08:51 PM   #2
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FT.com / Columnists / Clive Crook - An American polity blinded by rage

By Clive Crook
October 4 2009

Last week, in his column in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman broached a subject that nags at many Americans. “I have no problem with any of the substantive criticism of President Obama from the right or left,” he wrote. “But something very dangerous is happening. Criticism from the far right has begun tipping over into delegitimation and creating the same kind of climate here that existed in Israel on the eve of the Rabin assassination.”

Increasingly, rage is the dominant mood of US politics – but the feeling is not confined to the far right. Committed partisans on both sides question their opponents’ legitimacy. It is one thing for an adversary to be mistaken, quite another to be a liar or traitor. You do not argue with an opponent like that, or seek an accommodation. You silence him, you shout him down, you impeach.

Right-wing “birthers” question whether Mr Obama was born in the US and can lawfully be president. Their leftwing counterparts think George W. Bush stole the 2000 election, then permitted the attacks of 9/11 to justify his war against Iraq and the creation of a police state. Conservatives deride Mr Obama’s healthcare plan as a plot to turn the US socialist. Liberals, led by former president Jimmy Carter, no less, suggest that much of the opposition to Mr Obama is mere racism.

On substance, there is no discussion. Opponents’ views are not worth examining; bad faith goes without saying. In effect, each side questions the other’s right to participate.To repeat, this is an attitude of the politically committed, not representative of the country as a whole. Indeed, most Americans’ disgust at the relentless anger and ill will helps to explain their disenchantment with politics.

Polls show that the electorate holds an ever lower opinion of Congress, the cockpit of this struggle. They continue to show that Mr Obama is more popular than his policies – suggesting a taste for the consensual post-partisan politics that the president still says he seeks, even if his policies make one wonder if he means it. This also suggests, incidentally, that racism is not a significant influence: if it were, Mr Obama would be less popular than his policies, not more.

US politics has always been turbulent and ill-tempered. The culture war between left and right is hardly new. Yet the anger does seem to be rising. The bipartisan government that Mr Obama promised – and the middle of the country voted for – looks ever less likely. The question is, does it matter?

On this, left and right are as one. Bipartisanship is bunk. The soppy centre is no use. Good government is not just splitting the difference; it is splitting the heads of the enemy, and getting your way without compromise. We floating voters see things differently. We approve of consensual politics, thinking that it delivers better policies. And we believe this for two main reasons.

First, good policy involves trade-offs. In the farther reaches of left and right, these are forbidden. For the left, there could never be a reason to lower taxes on the rich. To improve incentives? No, the less you tax the rich, the richer they become and the lazier they can afford to be. For the right, there could never be a reason to raise taxes on the rich. To reduce public borrowing? No, have you not heard of the Laffer curve? Cut taxes for the rich and revenues will increase. The trade-offs that good policy requires can be properly discussed only in the political centre.

Second, good policy requires stability. Though Democrats apparently find this hard to imagine, they will not always control the White House and both chambers of Congress. Measures that infuriate the other side – remember the Bush tax cuts? – can be reversed. Policy that lurches to and fro is damaging. Consensual politics means smaller fluctuations.

For many years, relative stability was a marked feature of US politics – as compared, say, with Britain. And this surely worked to America’s advantage. Perhaps US politics is starting to look more like postwar British politics. If so, it is safe to say that the country will not like the results.

But one wonders whether even more may be at stake than the capacity to form sound and steady policy. So inflamed are the US political classes that a deeper breakdown begins to be imaginable.

Historically, the US has both accommodated and benefited from a remarkable degree of cultural pluralism – with sufficient civic tolerance, mutual (if sometimes grudging) respect and unashamed patriotism to bind the whole together. Now, more than ever, the instinct of politicians and their energised supporters is to divide. Mr Obama seemed to promise a corrective, but that hope is fading. Old and new media, obsessed with gladiatorial politics, offer no remedy. They either take sides or act as fight promoters; in any event they worsen the polarisation and leave the centre unserved. The internet’s echo chambers stir brainless anger and push the poles still further apart.

In the coming years, the US has enormous challenges to face – not least, like Britain before it, the trauma of relative economic decline. Right now, its polity looks unfit to cope. “A house divided against itself”, said Abraham Lincoln, “cannot stand.”
True. It's not as if it hasn't been worse at other times in American history. It has. People getting beat on the Senate floor and such. . .but then that worse time did lead to the Civil War.

What bothers me the most is that a lot of this fury is being whipped up by people who have a vested financial interest in keeping people angry.
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Old 10-07-2009, 10:04 PM   #3
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I think it was more toxic during the Clinton's Administration.

His successes and popularity drove the GOP into an even more raving frenzy than what we see today.
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Old 10-08-2009, 09:09 AM   #4
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I think it was more toxic during the Clinton's Administration.

His successes and popularity drove the GOP into an even more raving frenzy than what we see today.
Actually yeah, I remember that. Except that they were the only ones foaming at the mouth while everyone was riding a deregulation, money-making wave of prosperity.
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Old 10-08-2009, 09:44 AM   #5
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Actually, contra the article, I'd say Britain's politics remained pretty fucking stable throughout. The two parties of government in 1945 were the same two as exist today; as in the US. It was hardly Mogadishu. If America can lose its empire (in the broadest sense) with as much panache and wry humour, I will offer up a toast.

On the more substantive point: well. I don't even know where to begin. How does Mr Crook know what the country voted for? Did he interview them all? The 'middle'? What's that even mean?
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Old 10-08-2009, 12:31 PM   #6
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If America can lose its empire (in the broadest sense) with as much panache and wry humour, I will offer up a toast.


Perhaps the comparison to post-war British politics was more related to moving from conflict to consensus with other 'superpowers'.
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Old 10-08-2009, 02:35 PM   #7
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Not much chance of that, I'm afraid; we've never done the wry humor thing well. Too earnest, or something like that.
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