Friday, September 26

I Believe We've Been Over This Once Before

JON Stewart, god bless and keep 'im, did it the other day, talking with Bill Clinton, echoing one of Colbert's "The Word" bits from a week before: "does it surprise you that, with everything at stake, this campaign takes us back to 1968 and Nixonian versus McGovern [sic] culture divide--it's once again the Left demonizing the Right for narrow-mindedness, and the Right demonizing the Left for elitism, and it almost seems like a repeat of this same movie that we keep seeing..."

Was that just a slip, or a telling one? Obviously, Jon Stewart knows George McGovern ran in 1972. But the metaphorical George McGovern=Woodstock Nation=Culture War, and now=Nixonland, among the cognoscenti who didn't live through him, apparently. I do understand the frustration. I came close to throwing my vote away on John Anderson in 1980, before throwing it away on Barry Commoner. Anderson's all but forgotten now (in the same way Carter is now viewed as a Liberal), but he was the post-partisanship, change-the-tone-in-Washington candidate when that meant accepting the realities of Vietnam instead of re-writing them, acknowledging energy dependence and beginning the process of developing new technologies to reduce it, and fiscal conservatism coupled with social liberalism. He polled as high as 25% as an independent, but his 50¢/gal Federal gas tax proposal went over like Chuck D. at a Klan rally, and he wound up with less than 10% of the vote.

Maybe it's just me, but where I understood post-partisanship in those days, in the need to recognize new social realities as well as new economic and global ones, I'm not sure what Stewart's after today. A more respectful tone in our campaigning? His friend John McCain certainly has done his level best to prevent that. If we want campaigns to be about issues, we need to get the money out of them, shorten the process to the point where there's no time to talk about anything else (I'm not saying this would work, mind you), and dismantle the Electoral College. Then it wouldn't hurt to do away with faux-balance news, restore the Fairness Doctrine, and maybe find a citizenry less enamored of hidden larceny. In the end, would we have a politics much removed from today's? Or would it just be, mercifully, somewhat quieter? It's like Voltaire's Prayer; everybody thinks the key to reforming our politics lies in his opponents getting smarter.

And still I don't get the McGovern thing. How does that come to be "one side" of the Cultural War? Y'know, Jon Stewart gets a lot of milage out of saying f[bleeeeeep]k on teevee, and I'm sure he realizes that a generation ago he'd have been sharing a cell with Lenny Bruce. And if he ever finds himself trying to take a shit while perched two inches above a metal rim, it's going to be the American Right that put him there. I'm not saying that's likely to happen; the modern GOP allegiance is to Mammon, but they're still the ones grubbing for the extreme end of the Bronze Age Superstition vote. Why shouldn't I take them seriously? Paganism is the fastest-growing religion in the country, but my Indiana tax dollars don't go to producing In The Goddess We Trust license plates, and no one's been trying to erect a pentagram on the courthouse lawn hereabouts--except, maybe, as a response to Christianists doing so first. There aren't any organized gangs trying to harass pregnant teenagers into getting abortions. I don't see anybody handing out flaming American flags on a downtown corner. There wasn't a giant card on display at Lowe's back in 2003, urging the citizenry to announce We Don't Support the Troops. Yeah, I'm a partisan, because I believe these people are wrong, wrong factually and wrong about America, and because I believe this country was hijacked at the end of the Second World War by, for want of a better term, the military-industrial complex, later joined by Big Bidness in general, aided and abetted, as always, by organized religion, and that this has had the effect of perverting what few chances a highly-flawed species has been given, by technology, by the hard-won lessons of two world wars and a history of oppression and genocide, to live up to its better nature. Maybe Slate can explain where I've gone wrong:
In the late 1950s, eight out of 10 Americans said they could trust government to do the right thing most of the time. That level of faith in government remained high through 1964 and provided the foundation for LBJ's Great Society. In 1965, Johnson was able to pass the Voting Rights Act and Medicare (with the support of half the Republicans in the Senate). He created the Appalachian Regional Commission and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. The first class of children enrolled in Head Start.

That's what a president and Congress could do when voters trusted government.

Beginning in the mid-'60s, however, there was a "virtual explosion in anti-government feelings," wrote Seymour Martin Lipset and William Schneider. (Yep, CNN's Bill Schneider began life as a top-notch academic.) The decline in trust was "among the largest ever recorded in opinion surveys," one scholar wrote, and within a few years only one out of four Americans trusted government to do the right thing. Democrats lost the 1966 midterm elections, the Great Society was kaput, and Congress' dormant period had begun.

Hold up here a moment; I believe we've been over this before. The "Fifties" do not represent the last stroll down the Permanent Elm Street of American political consciousness before it was ripped up by the Evil Sixties Planning Commission and rerouted through colored neighborhoods. In the Fifties two generations of Americans who had either lived through, or had their lives profoundly influenced by the unspeakable horrors of two global wars, sandwiched around probably the largest economic downturn in our history (we can't really be sure about the size or effect of the various "Panics" of the 19th century) had a strong desire to return to "normalcy" and, assuming they were mostly white, and mostly Protestant, they mostly got it. Eight of ten may have told pollsters they trusted the government to do right; no doubt nearly as many believed the International Communist Conspiracy was about to take over Hollywood, that Science was just about to harness the Atom for Peaceful Purposes, that the US wanted to explore Space for the good of mankind, that the Weaker Sex couldn't drive a car or pick out a hat that didn't look ridiculous, that Negroes weren't very bright, that homosexuals were the Commies of sexuality, and that Milton Berle was funny. They were wrong.

And--we've said this before, too--the Fifties gave birth to Feminism, to environmentalism, to a Civil Rights movement that rejected quietism. It struck the first blows at censorship of film and printed material. It launched a crusade against the Tobacco industry, rejected the old stigmas about divorce, and, for that matter, saw the birth of modern Movement "Conservatism", which now, somehow, is allowed to portray itself as the defender and political heir of that monolithic and economically rewarding era. 

There are plenty of reasons why distrust of institutions became a more prevalent mindset in the 1960s: Silent Spring, Thalidomide, Minamata, the professional abuse of the mentally ill, destroying villages in order to save them. If governments lost the trust of the people in the 1960s it's not because people suddenly changed; it's because the powers that be got caught up in their lies. Hell, Chaucer considered that old hat.
So, we've muddled along, putting off problems (health care, immigration, whatever).

Yeah, whatevs, dude. Y'know, if you really mean to equate the concerted effort on the part of the Republican party, the health-care industry, and the insurance companies to make your health care the most expensive in the world, and maybe the forty-ninth most effective, with an argument over immigration maybe those square-framed glasses and bed head won't get you into Heaven anymore.

Christ, look, the reason why you can't get a new Head Start program, or a massive influx of money  into the public schools to match the rhetoric we already spend by the tankerload, isn't that people imagine government can do no good.  It's that there's a concerted effort to prevent social spending, read: on poor people, read: on the coloreds.  That's not a debate; it's the result of one side controlling the issue.  Even when it gained control of the issue, and decided to make hay by using, instead of trying to dismantle, the Department of Education, the GOP refused to cough up any money to go along with it.
Now we need government again. We can't do without it. But we've forgotten what it was like to trust government to take on exactly the kind of big job it was created to do.

If you're all so goddam convinced that we "need" to trust government again--where you been up to now, by the way?--then work to throw the lyin' bums out. But you're not exempt from the responsibility of saying exactly what you intend to replace them with. "Restoring the Fifties, except with bigger teevees"* ain't it. 

*Yes, indeedy, Bishop talks about our papering over our problems with Game Boys and HDTVs, as opposed to facing them. Chin music. It's an easy target; trust me, I shoot at 'em all the time. The Fifties were every bit as escapist as the Naughts are. If we seem to be in perpetual legislative gridlock (which is, in fact, partly the design of the system) it has a helluva lot more to do with the massive application of money to the process by financially interested parties than it does the attention span of the American voter. Take that on, Trust boy.


Anonymous said...

I actually did vote for Anderson, thinking that there was no way the goofy ex-actor could win and Carter wasn't looking very effective. I remember where I was as I watched the returns, the same way I remember where I was when I heard that JFK had been shot -- with a mix of horror and disbelief.

aimai said...


btw I cast my first ever vote, in the primary,for anderson but voted for carter in the real election. Can that be true? i have a strong memory of it. what year are we talking about again? who am I?


R. Porrofatto said...

I'd completely forgotten about Commoner. If we'd listened to him, we'd all be driving solar cars by now. And thanks for the rest. This stuff irks:

Bishop: By 1995, most of those answering a Washington Post poll said they opposed more federal spending to help the poor. That may be, but I could swear I've read differently since, but then I'm no journalist with a column to write and a very dead horse to beat. So, not being a professional, I looked it up and it took me 20 seconds to find this Zogby poll of June 04, 2007.

Zogby Poll: Majority Call Fighting Poverty a "Top Priority"
58% of voters more likely to vote for '08 candidate who sets goal of halving poverty within a decade.

Poll results included these items:
% Americans supporting
84% Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit
82% Expand Pell Grants
76% Provide guaranteed health care coverage for every American
72% Expand the food stamps program
71% Provide guaranteed childcare

And a McClatchy report also from 2007 that states:
According to opinion polls and interviews with political experts and voters, the U.S. population is more liberal than at any time in a generation, hungering to end the Iraq war, turn inward and use the federal government to solve problems at home.
The ranks of people who want the government to help the poor have risen sharply since the early 1990s — dramatically among independents, but even among Republicans.

Slate, isn't that an online magazine whose writers might have heard about this Googling thing?

Christopher said...

We don't trust government. Republicans, Democrats, or Ron-Paulians, none of us trusts government to do what's best, and we haven't for some time now.

Oi. This is a very annoying simplification. I mean, okay, let's imagine that Republicans have a blanket distrust of government: They assume the whole shebang is going to be venal and corrupt more often then not. How would they act? Would they, for example, create an entirely new department to deal with an old problem? Would they be for or against imposing Democracy on foreign countries using the military? How would they feel about government-sanctioned torture? The suspension of habeas corpus?

Both parties trust parts of the government to work incredibly well most of the time.

Or, to put it more simply, if we distrust the government so damn much, how the fuck were we suckered into the Iraq war?

stringonastick said...

Because for most people, "distrusting the government" means low level bitching at the local pub, yelling at the TeeVee, etc., but not actually DOING anything about that feeling that the money runs politics now, not the people.

The short answer is human entropy.

Anonymous said...

I remember the Anderson campaign, I was seventeen and itching to vote. Then I rode a bus out of my hometown and into social oblivion for nearly twenty years. Oh well.

My armchair off the top of my head theory is that journalists who get top readership don't understand poverty or even middle class life well enough to even know what the hell "the poor" is about. They see it as some monolithic group that threatens to tax their high earnings and thus they write with such leanings.

Its an issue of classism. Top journalists and most public figures more and more often harken from the upper middle class. Unfortunately, the more that programs to nullify our social/economic divide are killed, the more the only people we will hear from (or view) are those who couldn't begin to understand or care about the concerns of life of average or the economically below average folks. Which incidentally, make up most of the country.

I see no end in sight, really I don't. Until revolution that is.