The other day, a former student of mine told me on Facebook that I hate America. This is not some random student; this is a guy who, when he was my student, was respectful, hard-working, funny, smart, and interested in history. We have been corresponding over Facebook on a variety of topics. No surprises, he differs with me on some issues and we have been having what I thought of as a fairly civil and mutually enlightening debate about the Constitution, the idea of privacy under law, sources of law, philosophy of natural law, and so on. Then, politics got in the way.
He didn’t actually tell me individually that I hate America. What he did was put a post up saying he couldn’t understand why all the people who were going to vote for Hillary Clinton hate America. I responded that I served my country for eight years under conditions that were frequently unpleasant and occasionally dangerous. I come from a family that has given a member to America’s wars in every generation back to the Revolution. I bow to nobody in my love of country and I resent being told that I hate my country. He responded somewhat apologetically – you must be an exception, he said.
So my first reaction was, no, plenty of people are going to vote for Hillary Clinton who manifestly love their country. Colin Powell was a junior officer who commanded an infantry platoon and company in combat in Vietnam, and won decorations for valor. He served in pretty much every major command job in the Army up to Chief of Staff. He was Secretary of State (and had a private email server, btw). He’s going to vote for Hillary Clinton. George H.W. Bush was not America’s greatest president. However, he won his first election handily, and prior to that he served in a variety of roles. He was CIA Director and cleaned up the mess that the Nixon era had left in the Company. There’s a reason that they named the headquarters building the George Bush Center for Intelligence. He was a decorated naval aviator in WWII. He’s going to vote for Hillary Clinton. Jimmy Carter was also not America’s greatest president, but he is also a stand-up guy and a good (Protestant) Christian. He was a professional naval officer, a submariner, who served in the Second World War and went on to play an important role in the development of nuclear power in the submarine force before retiring and getting into politics. He’s going to vote for Hillary Clinton. My mother was in the Air Corps in World War Two, worked for civil rights, taught for decades in a majority-black underserved school, and is a very patriotic woman. She is going to vote for Hillary Clinton (probably with more enthusiasm than Powell or Bush). When my young friend has done as much for this country as those people have done, he can come back and suggest to them that they hate their country.
That was my first reaction – sort of “up yours, you sanctimonious little prick, how dare you say that I don’t love my country.” Then I thought, there’s more to it than that. America is in a bad way when people can toss this sort of accusation around. The Republic is truly in peril.
You used to hear “America, love it or leave it” from the right as a criticism of Vietnam War protestors. But few of the “hardhats” of that generation really believed that their liberal opponents were trying to destroy this country or turn it over to the Reds. Archie Bunker was a figure of fun, even for people who largely agreed with his politics. And few of the Bunkers’ opponents actually left. Few even talked about how the conservatives of the day were actually closet fascists who wanted to make America like Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy.
You hear this sort of discourse very commonly today from both sides. Trump supporters often say that those of us on the left want to make America a socialist state, which they equate with Soviet Russia or North Korea. They also claim that we are secretly supporting Islamic fundamentalism and want to institute sharia law in America. The inconsistency between those two perils doesn’t seem to bother them; precision about ideologies and political philosophy is one of those things that pinko intellectuals like myself care about but doesn’t make much of an impact on the broad mass of Americans. On the left, you often hear that Trump is Hitler, or Mussolini, and he wants to subvert American democracy and replace it with an authoritarian system modeled on mid-20th century fascism. Those of you who have stuck with me over this long silence will remember an earlier post in which I pointed out that Trump may or may not be Hitler but America is not early 1930s Germany.
My optimistic attitude of last spring has dissolved in the rains of an Oregon October. I was truly shocked that a generally decent fellow with an inquiring mind who has read a whole bunch of philosophy can somehow decide that a difference of political opinion in a republic equates to treason. How did we come to this place?
It’s easy to blame the right for this. A generation of Republican politicians has conditioned the public, especially the Fox News and Rush Limbaugh consuming public, to believe that Democratic politicians are evil crooks who seek to enrich themselves and cooperate with the enemies of America to gain power. There has been a truly disgusting series of slanders by Republican campaigns against Democrats, starting with the Willie Horton ad in the 1988 campaign, and hitting a low point with the Swift Boat ads attacking John Kerry and the attacks by the decorative Anne Coulter on Max Cleland, a combat veteran who left three limbs in Vietnam, and, of course, the repeated accusations that Barack Obama was born on Pluto.
I don’t think that the leading Republicans believe these things – that Michael Dukakis wanted to let black rapists out of jail so they could reoffend, that John Kerry cheated to get wartime decorations, that Max Cleland was a clumsy soldier who injured himself and then came back home to sell out veteran’s services, or that Barack Obama was some sort of an Islamic fundamentalist socialist liberation theology Manchurian candidate who wanted to destroy America. But they were willing that their surrogates in the media should tell the credulous public these things so that the Republican leadership could get the votes they needed to implement their agenda. Their agenda is not fascism – they want to do what Republicans have wanted to do for a long time, back to the days of Lincoln or even Hamilton: make government regulations less restrictive of business practices, expand subsidies from the government to business, protect American business where needed against foreign competition, and in general make America strong and prosperous through growing the private sector.
This is a coherent political ideology that used to be able to get enough votes to win elections. Indeed, up to 1932, it was the dominant political ideology in America. Progressivism won a few elections (1904, 1912, 1916), but even then progressives had to make compromises with traditional capitalists. It was the Great Depression that really decreased the credibility of the capitalist solution and replaced it with the ideology of Franklin Roosevelt; that the function of government was to protect the weakest members of society and grow the economy through the demand side, through ensuring that the average American had the resources necessary to be competitive in the economy and thus a vigorous consumer. This is still an ideology with a lot of followers. When you ask Trump voters if they want to privatize Social Security, they say no, by large margins. When you ask them if they want insurance companies to be able to throw people out of their plans if they get sick, they say no. When you ask them if public education is important to them, they say yes. So the way Republicans have gotten votes for their policies since 1932 has been to combine an argument that they would be more efficient in delivering those desired services – Trump wants to “repeal and replace” Obamacare instead of just repealing it – and to appeal to tribal instincts among white voters.
The appeal to white tribalism has been a big deal for Republicans since 1964, when they nominated the very conservative Barry Goldwater, who was up-front about his desire to dismantle the New Deal system, but who also opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the grounds that it restricted the right of businesspeople to control their own businesses (by refusing to do business with black people). It wasn’t that he was a racist, his motives were purely libertarian, but to his and many Republicans’ surprise, he captured a number of southern states that no Republican presidential candidate had carried since Reconstruction (when blacks were allowed to vote in the south). Richard Nixon paid attention; in the 1968 election, he argued for “law and order” and “welfare reform” that would prevent fraud and mismanagement. These were what we call “dog whistle” appeals – calls for tribal solidarity among white working class people, especially southerners, who were convinced that welfare and crime were problems of black people. In fact, of course, then and now the majority of criminals and the majority of welfare recipients in this country are white people because the majority of the people are white, but like the confusing agenda conservatives ascribe to the left, intellectual consistency is not a strong suit of the American public. Nixon was able to implement some of the capitalist ideas that were at the core of his Republican agenda, as well as taking public positions that convinced the tribal voters that he stood with them. Ronald Reagan followed the same playbook – when he was running for president in 1980, he kicked off his general election campaign at the county fair in the Mississippi county where, 16 years before, three civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Reagan told the people at that county fair that he was with them. In his speech, he said he was for “states’ rights”, which in context is another dog whistle that means the right of southern states to oppress their black inhabitants. As president, Reagan did not in fact roll back civil rights, at least not very much. He was really not much interested in the social issues such as race relations or abortion (which had become a big issue since the Nixon years thanks to the decision by Protestant Evangelical leaders to come out against abortion and make it an issue that unified their community behind the Republicans). Reagan was mostly concerned with cutting taxes and regulations on business in order to implement that consistent Republican agenda.
The Democratic response to all this has not helped to reduce tensions, however. After suffering three defeats in a row (1980, 1984, 1988), Democrats scaled back on their commitment to the New Deal idea, instead presenting moderate to center-right candidates who promised to protect the more popular gains of the New Deal – civil rights, Social Security – and to find compromise with that Republican idea. This has been the formula for success of the Clintons and of Obama. Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” and said “the era of big government is over”. Obama gave us a market-based, not-quite-universal health care system instead of the public system that the New Deal had failed to implement (unlike every other industrial democracy in the 1950s and 60s). Obama responded to the economic crash of 2008 with a mix of market-based solutions like loan refinancing, government subsidies for businesses, and infrastructure projects instead of the New Deal’s aggressive statist interventions in 1933-39. By, to some extent, hijacking the Republicans’ ideas, Clinton and Obama infuriated the Republican leadership and made their core message less distinctive. They doubled down on the tribalism. Democrats responded with their own tribalism. Back in the 19th century, blacks were almost all Republicans because Republicans had given them freedom. Even in the New Deal era, blacks were split, with important figures like Martin Luther King Sr. remaining loyal to the Republicans. Party differences were more about class than they were about tribal or regional affiliation in those days, with Democrats capturing working-class people in the south and the north (including blacks where they were permitted to vote) and the Republicans capturing the business community and the professional class. Many people were open to voting across party lines, even if they principally supported one party.
Thus it was that when one candidate was very successful at capturing the zeitgeist, like Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, they could run up huge majorities in the electoral college. Walter Mondale only captured his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia in 1984 while losing the popular vote by an 18% margin. This would be inconceivable today. If Hillary Clinton gets 55% of the popular vote it will be a butt-kicking of epochal proportions and I can’t imagine her getting more than 350 electoral votes. This is because today, many people can’t conceive of voting for a Democrat, even a pretty conservative Democrat like Clinton. And many people on the left can’t conceive of voting for a Republican, even a pretty liberal one. The Republican Party in Oregon has offered a variety of moderate candidates for statewide office in recent years, and the last Republican to win statewide office in Oregon was in the last millennium, Gordon H. Smith, a US senator who served until 2007. One happy sign is that one of these moderate Republicans, Dennis Richardson, is in position to be elected Secretary of State here, maybe. I didn’t vote for him but his electoral power suggests that maybe Oregonians aren’t as tribal as the rest of the country.
Ok, to continue…I’ve moved up the Willamette Valley from one job (Mount Angel) to another one (Clackamas Community College) where I will be teaching US Military History this evening. But I have time for a few more thoughts while I’m waiting for my dinner in a eatery close to campus.
Democrats have their own problem with tribalism. It starts with that Republican pivot to conservative white voters that started in the sixties, but the response has been for a lot of people to more or less absolutely write off Republican candidates. When you see Republicans failing to condemn a candidate who appeals to racism and nativism, people who have suffered from racism and nativism will dismiss anybody with that brand. The whole protest movement against police violence and mass incarceration has further polarized the debate.
Another problem is anti-intellectualism. The Brexit battle in Britain has something to tell us here: a strong consensus of economists and policy analysts told Britons over and over again that leaving the European Union would cost jobs and damage the British economy, especially the financial sector. They also told Britons that the decision would cost the government money and make it more difficult, not less, to continue the programs that British voters love, like universal health care. Opponents pooh-poohed the experts and voters said they’d had enough of experts. So they voted for leaving, whereupon all the leaders of the opposition quit, in the process admitting that, yes, as a matter of fact, the experts were right, and Britain was heading for economic depression and reduced government services. Disbelieving in the experts as a funciton of loyalty to a tribal political position has become more important in America as well. The classic case is global warming. Loyalty to the right-wing orthodoxy requires people to ignore the evidence that global warming is happening and it is caused by human activity. So they prefer to believe that a bunch of anti-capitalist hippies in academia have made up the evidence and are colluding with government for some nefarious purpose to restrict business growth. I wonder if, in the back of their minds, they know that human-caused global warming is real but perhaps they feel that they can’t do anything about it and so it is better to preserve the unity of their faction rather than admit reality. Cognitive dissonance is a funny thing. But in our current election campaign, expert opinion is clearly on Clinton’s side. The vast majority of foreign-policy professionals, retired military flag officers, scientists, economists, and other experts are on her side. There’s a reason all those prominent Republicans that I cited in the first paragraph are voting for her. So if the experts agree, for today’s anti-intellectual mindset, this is just another sign that a corrupt elite are trying to foist a choice on us for some nefarious purpose.
There are leftist anti-intellectual idiocies as well. The leftist candidate in the presidential election, Jill Stein of the Green Party, is an anti-vaxxer. That is, she has expressed sympathy (though not complete agreement) with arguments that immunization against childhood diseases spreads autism and is being pushed on us by the government and big pharmaceutical corporations for some nefarious purpose. What makes this especially outrageous is that she is a medical doctor and certainly should know better.
One of the biggest selling points of the Trump candidacy has been his entire lack of government expertise. As the story goes, he will be a better president because he has not been connected with the failures of the past, and besides how hard can it be to be a government official?
If the experts are not to be trusted, and political experience is meaningless, we end up with no authority at all. And then, people turn even more strongly to their tribe as the only source of security in an uncertain world. Ultimately, we could end up with a situation like one of Burkina Faso’s poor neighboring countries, where years passed without any legitimate national government at all.