Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Liberal Anger

An oxymoron? So it seemed until quite recently. As Molly Ivins points out,

Guys like Rush Limbaugh figured that out a long time ago--attack a liberal and the first thing he says is, "You may have a point there."

Conservatives, on the other hand, are excellent haters. They have had the hate arena mostly to themselves for the last decade, after all, and practice does make perfect. Liberals are no match for voices such as Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh, though they are the targets, naturally. So puny has the left resistance been in these games that some right-wingers have had to turn to attacking their own to stay in training. Here's David Frum, a neo-conservative, on the paleoconservatives of his own party:

They began by hating the neoconservatives. They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country.
War is a great clarifier. It forces people to take sides. The paleoconservatives have chosen — and the rest of us must choose too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them

Well, things are looking up for Frum and other underemployed conservative pugilists. Several recent articles have declared that liberals have finally turned angry. "I hate Bush" begins Jonathan Chait in last September's New Republic, and he notes that he's not the only one:

There seem to be quite a few of us Bush haters. I have friends who have a viscerally hostile reaction to the sound of his voice or describe his existence as a constant oppressive force in their daily psyche. Nor is this phenomenon limited to my personal experience: Pollster Geoff Garin, speaking to The New York Times, called Bush hatred "as strong as anything I've experienced in 25 years now of polling." Columnist Robert Novak described it as a "hatred ... that I have never seen in 44 years of campaign watching."

Not only does the conservative columnist Novak find this hatred unmatched in the last forty-four years of campaing watching (he must have had his back towards his own troops), but other commentators on the right also find it 'puzzling', 'a mystery'. Liberals have no such trouble understanding the root causes of Bush-hatred. Here's Chait's summary on the issues which have turned your average kind-hearted Liberal into a bloodthirsty wannabe-warrior. He sets out the scene by reminding us that the year 2000 election results made all reasonable observers expect that George W. Bush would govern from a moderate, bi-partisan position:

Instead, Bush has governed as the most partisan president in modern U.S. history. The pillars of his compassionate-conservative agenda--the faith-based initiative, charitable tax credits, additional spending on education--have been abandoned or absurdly underfunded. Instead, Bush's legislative strategy has revolved around wringing out narrow, party-line votes for conservative priorities by applying relentless pressure to GOP moderates--in one case, to the point of driving Vermont's James Jeffords out of the party. Indeed, when bipartisanship shows even the slightest sign of life, Bush usually responds by ruthlessly tamping it down. In 2001, he convinced GOP Representative Charlie Norwood to abandon his long-cherished patients' bill of rights, which enjoyed widespread Democratic support. According to a Washington Post account, Bush and other White House officials "met with Norwood for hours and issued endless appeals to party loyalty." Such behavior is now so routine that it barely rates notice. Earlier this year, a column by Novak noted almost in passing that "senior lawmakers are admonished by junior White House aides to refrain from being too chummy with Democrats."

When the September 11 attacks gave Bush an opportunity to unite the country, he simply took it as another chance for partisan gain. He opposed a plan to bolster airport security for fear that it would lead to a few more union jobs. When Democrats proposed creating a Department of Homeland Security, he resisted it as well. But later, facing controversy over disclosures of pre-September 11 intelligence failures, he adopted the idea as his own and immediately began using it as a cudgel with which to bludgeon Democrats. The episode was telling: Having spent the better part of a year denying the need for any Homeland Security Department at all, Bush aides secretly wrote up a plan with civil service provisions they knew Democrats would oppose and then used it to impugn the patriotism of any Democrats who did--most notably Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a triple-amputee veteran running for reelection who, despite his support for the war with Iraq and general hawkishness, lost his Senate race thanks to an ugly GOP ad linking him to Osama bin Laden.

All this helps answer the oft-posed question of why liberals detest Bush more than Reagan. It's not just that Bush has been more ideologically radical; it's that Bush's success represents a breakdown of the political process. Reagan didn't pretend to be anything other than what he was; his election came at the crest of a twelve-year-long popular rebellion against liberalism. Bush, on the other hand, assumed office at a time when most Americans approved of Clinton's policies. He triumphed largely because a number of democratic safeguards failed. The media overwhelmingly bought into Bush's compassionate-conservative facade and downplayed his radical economic conservatism. On top of that, it took the monomania of a third-party spoiler candidate, plus an electoral college that gives disproportionate weight to GOP voters--the voting population of Gore's blue-state voters exceeded that of Bush's red-state voters--even to bring Bush close enough that faulty ballots in Florida could put him in office.

But Bush is never called to task for the radical disconnect between how he got into office and what he has done since arriving. Reporters don't ask if he has succeeded in "changing the tone." Even the fact that Bush lost the popular vote is hardly ever mentioned. Liberals hate Bush not because he has succeeded but because his success is deeply unfair and could even be described as cheating.

Add to this the anger boiling due to the administration's unusual approach to environmental protection, its contempt for women's rights, its unilateralism and most importantly, its pre-emptively defensive war against Saddam Hussein, and most of the ingredients of the liberal Molotov's cocktail are mixed. The only thing that's surprising about this anger is how slow it has been in coming together.

So, now that we are all angry together, will the country benefit? The answer depends on whom one asks. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times deplores this trend:

Considering the savagery with which the Snarling Right excoriated President Clinton as a "sociopath," blocked judicial appointments, undermined U.S. military operations from Kosovo to Iraq, hounded Vincent Foster and then accused the Clintons of murdering him, it is utterly hypocritical for conservatives to complain about liberal incivility. But they're right. Liberals have now become as intemperate as conservatives, and the result - everybody shouting at everybody else - corrodes the body politic and is counterproductive for Democrats themselves.

Anger may well corrode the body politic; in fact, the conservative anger has already done so. But why is anger counterproductive for Democrats when it seems to have served the Republicans very well? Kristof implies that the kind of anger that gets you votes is not the liberal sort:

My guess is that if the Democrats stay angry, then they'll offend Southern white guys, with or without pickups and flags, and lose again.

Hmmm. And if the Democrats swallow their anger and smile, will the Southern white guys vote for them in droves? Please say that it is so, Nicholas.

Given the above analysis, the Republicans should welcome the anger of liberals everywhere. They don't seem to do so, of course. Rather, they act as if their own behavior in the last decade or so has been worthy of ten Nobel Peace Prizes. You know, feigned assaulted innocence.

Consider the reactions from the right to the MoveOn Organization's recent ad competition where one of the entries had Bush morph into Hitler. RNC chairman Ed Gillespie called this "the worst and most vile form of political hate speech" and "a despicable tactic". And no doubt it is. However, using nazi-terminology to describe ones political opponents appears to be much more common from the other side of the aisle. Here are Michael Savage and Norman Liebmann on the topic of nazis:

"I once wrote that 'Vac'm in the Vulva' Barbara Boxer was the reincarnation of Adolf Mengele in drag, the Nazi Angel of Death. I meant it. ... The spirit of Mengele knows well to start at the weakest point and work from there – with Clinton, Singer, Boxer or any other willing host."

"The difference between Clinton's fascists and Hitler's fascists is Clinton's have no paradigm. The trickiest to identify are the fascists in Arkansas, but only because the people there found the Nazi salute too intricate a maneuver for them to master."

Conwebwatch gives thirty-four such examples of the use of nazi imagery by right-wing pundits in the last five years.

No sane person would defend such slurs from either political party, but in the absence of these extremes, could rising liberal anger actually be a good thing? Paul Starobin in the Atlantic Monthly thinks so:

The clash between angry secular liberals and angry religiously motivated conservatives sometimes seems to generate little more than media din. But the rising partisanship of the American voter is probably a positive development. A country as big and diverse as the United States cannot avoid contentious fights over public-policy issues. A broad sorting of voters into a Red team and a Blue team—a trend harking back to the intense partisanship of the nineteenth century—is better than a European-style fragmentation of the electorate into numerous small parties, able to govern only after patching together fragile coalitions. The same Pew Research Center survey that found—tut-tut—a surge in the intensity of partisan feelings also turned up a decline in cynicism about government.

I'd feel more comfortable with Starobin's arguments if his excitement didn't give me mental images of beer-drinking fans rooting for the two sides in the Superbowl. Does he want two big teams because their clash would be more gigantic, and therefore more fun to watch? Or because he seems to see the art of compromising as nothing but the 'patching together of fragile coalitions'? Would this country indeed be better off with more open anger on both sides?

And might the liberals themselves be better off now that they are finally angry? How will they negotiate this volatile emotion? Its dangerous zones are at both ends of the scale: in sullen, inward-turned bitterness and apathy on one hand and in self-destructive foaming-at-the-mouth rage on the other. Neither of these are attractive campaign promises for the Democratic candidates. But there is a third way: anger used as fuel for long-term organizing, campaigning and negotiating. This is anger as a small warming flame firmly under control of reason; anger with a smiling face if you like.

I believe, on balance, that the new liberal anger can be a great opportunity when carefully handled. It isn't even that new, historically speaking. What could be more liberal than the righteous anger one feels when injustices are committed? That, my friends, lies at the very heart of liberalism.
See Carol Tavris' Anger. The Misunderstood Emotion for more ideas about how to use anger productively.