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What Would People Think?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Politics Has Always Been This Bad (and maybe that's not a bad thing)

One of the reasons I love reading about history is that it puts modern events - especially modern politics - in a new light. When you have a shallow historical understanding which sees the past as some sort of golden age and past leaders as demi-gods, it's easy to despair the modern era of danger, divisiveness, mudslinging, and mediocrity. (That alliteration came to me without me even trying. Can anybody tell I grew up listening to Southern Baptist sermons?)

But when you study history, you learn that folks like the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln were just as human and flawed as current politicians. You learn that events seemed just as complex, muddy, and morally compromised to them in their era as our problems seem to us. The name-calling of the modern era has nothing on the Election of 1800. (My favorite is the pamphlets referring to Thomas Jefferson as a "howling atheist.")

That's comforting to me. It means we haven't fallen downhill. Things were always this difficult. People were always this messed up. And yet we as a nation have pulled through. (Of course, if you want to keep extrapolating, other superpowers of history - the Roman Empire, the British Empire - eventually fell.) The problems we face today are different....they are challenging and they are legion. But the people trying to solve those problems aren't somehow inferior to the politicians of old. I believe - for better or worse - that they have just as much chance of solving the problems they face as Lincoln and Washington had in facing the problems of their respective eras.

I've been thinking these things for a while. But an interesting thought is raised by David Greenberg in this book review. The book he's reviewing strips away a lot of the mythology of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The book shows how those debates had just as much political posturing, personal attacks, distortion of the other person's position, and base pandering as modern politics. But - and here's the key - they also still involved thorough and sophisticated debate about all aspects of the major issue of the day (the expansion of slavery). Greenberg's thesis is that "down-and-dirty politics and serious argument about burning issues need not exist in separate realms." That is, Greenberg argues that it's in the context of ugly campaigning and bitter attempts to put down the other guy that actual arguments about the issues happens.

I'm not entirely sure if I buy that. I've observed too much avoidance of real discussion of the issues in favor of name-calling, sound bites, and Swift-Boating. But even in the midst of that, I must admit that some real discussion of issues take place. And certainly it's more realistic to look at the issue-discussion that happens in the context of actual politics than to hope for some Olympian, non-existent, rationalistic discussion of the issues. Human nature is what it is. We aren't going to see an ideal, purely issues-driven campaign in my lifetime. (Although John McCain and Barack Obama are far more likely to approximate it than Bush-Rove or any of the Clintons.) It's good to think that, despite the limitations of how actual democracy works, there's still a possibility of discussion of the issues.

All this doesn't mean I won't stop decrying shallow media coverage and the paucity of actual policy discussion....doesn't mean I won't relish the thoughtful discussion that often takes place among the community of bloggers and friends I know. But I can look with a little more hope at the 2008 campaign.

(Incidentally, I've been doing a little reading into church history as of late. Turns out it's just as useful to grow from the insights of long-dead people - and learn from their failings - in the realm of my personal faith as it is in the realm of politics.)


  • Two thoughts: 1. I think that the abundance of "name-calling" comes from a media looking for a soundbite and not-too-significant differences in policy. Maybe 100s of years ago, when there were two newspaper in all of New York (I'm guessing here), not alot of valuable print space was given to Dolly Madison's cleavage. Nowadays, it seems (especially in this primary season) it quickly went, "What do you believe in? Yep, me too" and then on to whose friends were more psychotic.

    2. "The problems we face today are different [from Rome or the British Empire]." It bears reminding people that never in history has there been such a "empire" of this size and duration that was founded on democracy -- no dictators, kings, military despots. We forget sometimes, relative to the course of human history, just how breathtakingly free we are. Of course, this is why I stay so worked up defending the Constitution against the spread of government -- the idea dreamed up by Jefferson and Madison years ago was beyond imagination. Oh, how amazingly it works.

    By Blogger Andy, at 5/24/2008 10:13 AM  

  • Responses to Andy's points: 1. Yeah, particularly with regards to the Democratic primary, I think the biggest policy differences they've been able to draw is "Obama's health care plan is slightly less socialist than Clinton's" and "Obama opposed the war before Clinton did". No wonder they've reverted to the "how nuts are your supporters" arguments.

    2. Yes, we are breathtakingly free (a phrase I really like by the way) particularly in a historical context, and what's more amazing is that based on that Constitution we should be even freer. You're precisely right that continued expansion of government could eventually lead to a more imperial state, which is why it's important to be extremely guarded about what exactly we allow the federal government to be responsible for (already too much, IMO).

    "The problems we face today are different....they are challenging and they are legion." I half-expected you to follow with "And they are louder than all that burns inside me." (Obscure reference Ben, Jeff, me, and nobody else will get.)

    As much as we focus on all the mud-slinging and Swift-boating that goes on, I believe (or at least like to believe) that people still mostly focus on the issues and their perceptions of a candidate's integrity when making up their minds in the voting booth. To use 2004 as an example, I truly think most people took a look at John Kerry and George W. Bush and decided Bush was better equipped to handle the crises we were (and are) faced with. Maybe that's naivete on my part, but whatever. There may be "buyer's remorse" later on (Bush's approval suggests that might be the case), but based on the intelligence available at the time (to borrow a phrase) I think most people would stand by their decision.

    Which is another thing about Americans: we're stubborn as all hell. That may be our saving grace, or it may be our downfall.

    But yeah, enough rambling. Politics is politics. In many ways, we're positively cordial now compared to days of old. For better or worse.

    By Blogger Mike, at 5/24/2008 11:09 AM  

  • In response to Andy's first point: I think what you're saying about modern media and politics is entirely correct (miracles happen! I agree with Andy on something!), but part of my point is that politics was every bit as shallow and full of distortion then as it is now. So I don't think these modern trends are entirely to blame. Some of it is just the timeless truths of what works in appealing to voters...or what behavior people running for office are prone to do.

    By Blogger Ben, at 5/24/2008 4:57 PM  

  • Hmmm, Mike AND Ben agreeing with me. (Checks notes, checks notes...) Where did I mess up? :)

    Sorry to not reference the salient point, Ben. I'll be honest, I've only read the biographies of Washington, Adams and Jackson (so 39 left to go, Truman's on deck) hence I can comment only on them. I'm never disturbed by what I see from the candidates these days because I'm reminded of Brands's portrait of Jackson who would essentially threaten to shoot you if you disagreed with him. Now, the candidates just resort to call one another's surrogates racist and sexist. I see that as an slight improvement.

    By Blogger Andy, at 5/25/2008 10:42 AM  

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