No Exit—Please! Don’t Let Anyone Kid You. We Love Our Politics Hostile, Polarized and Alienating

Half the country is enraged. The other half is incredulous.

The party of rage shouts, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The party of incredulity cries, “I’m shocked as hell, and I’m not going to listen to this anymore!”

At the same time, each side follows the other’s grievances and recriminations with pornographic intensity, to the point that the political landscape is defined not by ungratifying facts, but by delicious incidents.

While the enraged half wants everyone who is not enraged to be confined to reservations in France or Manhattan, the incredulous half wonders how candidates who oppose seemingly every adaptation of modern governance to modern society can be so popular.

As one of the incredulous, I get appalled by the smug liberal conviction that working-class and lower-middle-class conservative voters don’t realize they are being screwed into voting for the rich.

Surely the following propositions are self-evidently true: The public sphere must be maintained as the private sphere is helped to flourish. The rich should pay proportionately more taxes than the middle class. Everyone, regardless of income, should be entitled to affordable medical care. When the capitalism that has made so many people wealthy overruns its boundaries and shows its hidden teeth and claws, government should help correct the imbalance and assist people who have become sick, or unemployed, or frail. And yet, two centuries as a nation and more than 50 years as a superpower later, we’re still trying to establish a workable American fairness.

At this point, a peculiar development occurs. The more the party of incredulity is convinced of the immovable wrongheadedness of the party of rage, the happier it gets about its own moral position. The sound of rational protest underneath the right’s robotic blustering goes blissfully unheard. The fatal flaw of the liberal mind has always been a ravenous hunger for a moral superiority that will serve as the permanent last word of any argument. In that sense, the new radical right is a godsend to the needy liberal conscience. And the deeply gratified moral indignation of the liberals, which has a paralyzing effect on liberal politics, is a godsend to the frenzies of the new radical right.

Like a kinetic desktop gadget, American politics has its own self-perpetuating dynamic.

The right reveres authority and scorns government. The left admires government and disdains authority. People on the right draw strength from the feeling that they are being marginalized by the powers-that-be: “elected” products of impermeable networks. People on the left draw strength from the feeling that they are being victimized by the powers-that-shouldn’t-be: shadowy billionaires and secret campaign donors. The right does not want to admit that without mountains of money, no one in this country can influence the political system. But the left does not want to admit that beyond a certain saturation point of superwealth, as in all plutocracies, money has to bow to other factors. See Ross Perot and Steve Forbes. Both sides are swimming in appalling amounts of dough.

The right seeks elected positions while vowing to obliterate government. The left speaks of moral obligation while deriding anyone’s claim to embody it. The right accuses cultural “elites” of clubby exclusivity while throwing its support behind clubbily exclusive business mandarins. The left complains about the right’s clandestine donors and locustlike lobbyists while welcoming clandestine donors and relying on locustlike lobbyists. The left looks to government for salvation yet thinks itself above the dirty expediencies of politics. The right looks for salvation to the dirty expediencies of politics yet condemns the operations of government. Neither side will recognize that it is neck-deep in the contradictions and hypocrisies practiced by the other side.

As a result, neither side can see the kernel of sense at the heart of the other side’s efforts to prevail. As one of the incredulous, I get appalled by the smug liberal conviction that working-class and lower-middle-class conservative voters don’t realize they are being screwed into voting for the rich. In fact, such voters feel empowered by their alliance with great wealth. They enjoy being rhetorically pandered to by the rich, even if the rich are transparently insincere about it. The very insincerity, the winking phoniness of it, just makes the anti-holier-than-thou bullshitters more human. 

What’s the matter with Kansas? Why, nothing. The eponymous Kansans are people who don’t believe that their economic lives will undergo any dramatic change for the better. Therefore, they find their power in the cultural, not the economic, realm. They assert themselves in their church communities and through their religious beliefs–the very dimensions that liberals treat with contempt and wish to replace with social programs and political initiatives. For such conservative voters, talk about individual initiative is not a rhetorical ruse. It addresses a primal psychological truth. A hike in taxes is a blow, not to the accumulation of wealth, but to the libido. Liberals have their go-go culture. “Kansans” have low taxes.

You may not buy my speculations, but is there no insight, or rationality, or moral justification to be found somewhere in the other side’s outrages? Liberals are scratching their heads over just why Virginia Thomas, Clarence Thomas’s wife, would leave a message on Anita Hill’s office answering machine asking her to apologize for accusing Justice Thomas of sexual harassment all those many years ago. For them, the (delicious) incident crystallizes their current incredulity. They consider it incredible that Ms. Thomas is still so blinded by anger that she fails to see the obvious, which is that Ms. Hill was telling the truth while Mr. Thomas was lying and that he was clearly unfit, on the basis of Ms. Hill’s testimony about his character, to sit on the Supreme Court.

Never mind the truly fascinating question of Mr. Thomas’ creepy character. Never mind that though no one ever demonstrated before Congress or a court of law that Mr. Thomas was lying, the evidence later proved that he was. Ms. Hill and her enablers made a fateful mistake. Once the Pandora’s box of unquantifiable private behavior was opened and deployed as a public standard, American politics was irrevocably degraded.

And so on the eve of what may well prove to be the most triumphant moment for a broad-based, right-wing movement since the ascension of Reagan, Ms. Thomas experienced a crystallization of her rage. She wanted to tell Ms. Hill that what comes around, goes around. She wanted to crow that the liberal fury that almost toppled her black husband as conservatives watched, unbelieving, is now about to cripple Ms. Hill’s black president, in the form of conservative fury, as liberals watch, unbelieving.

About the fluidity of American rage and incredulity and the blind complicity of political adversaries in each other’s momentum, she’s onto something. But don’t expect anyone who believes Ms. Thomas’ side is wrong ever to concede that she might also be right.

  No Exit—Please! Don’t Let Anyone Kid You. We Love Our Politics Hostile, Polarized and Alienating