The politics of contempt

7 09 2011

Can I steal from myself? ‘Cause I’m gonna steal from myself.

I’ve been yelping and hectoring and despairing and whatevering for the past year on the battlefield that is American politics, on the Republicans’ scorched-earth tactics, and on President Obama’s unwillingness to open the hose on these arsonists.

There is more to be said on this.

My attention is wavering, however, so I’ll let James Fallows (here, here, here, and here) and TNC run a few legs of this race, and, for now, simply steal the comment I posted at TNC’s joint:

I think this [destructiveness] goes back even further—at least to FDR—but it took a different form then than it does now.

My hypothesis: that the sense of the illegitimacy of any kind of left (center-left on outwards) government used to be on the fringes of the polity, but has since edged into some of the main streams of the Republican party.

There were certainly (loud) mutterings that Roosevelt was a communist, but I don’t know that these came from the Republican leadership. The Eisenhower administration was, of course, attacked by McCarthy, and Kennedy was hardly universally mourned; still, even if the GOP leadership thought that all liberals and Democrats (a phrase that only in the late 80s became redundant) were axiomatically illegitimate, they didn’t say so in public.

The attack on the legitimacy of the government emerged as an open campaign theme in the 1980s; the attack on the legitimacy of Democrats to lead government blew open in the 1990s, culminating, of course, with the impeachment of Clinton. These lines crossed and fused in the 2000s, apparent in the various campaigns, and then going nuclear—with the eventual blessing of the GOP leadership—with the election of Obama.

Again, this is just an hypothesis, and I’d guess that a full exploration of this hunch would reveal all sorts of exceptions and wrinkles and significant subdynamics (such as the movement of white southern Democrats into the GOP); I’d also caution that I think this phenomenon has until recently been confined to the national level.

I’ll let this be for awhile—other things on my mind—but the full flowering of this discourse of delegitimization is nothing less than an expression of contempt for democracy itself.

That bears watching.

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2 responses

8 09 2011
dmf

Saw a stunning doc on PBS the other day on the full story of the Pentagon Papers where Ellsberg is sure that when the American people knew the truth about the war in Vietnam that they would turn against the president but instead after the newspapers valiantly posted the papers Nixon won in a massive landslide victory:
http://www.pbs.org/pov/mostdangerousman/

10 09 2011
absurdbeats

Mencken (or was it Barnum) may be apropos, here.

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