Friday, May 30, 2008

Why is politics so much more bitter today?

I see this question in news commentary all the time, and even one of my kids asked me.

Yes, back in 1963 John Kennedy and Barry Goldwater were good friends planning to barnstorm the country together holding friendly debates during the 1964 presidential race. And from 1932 to 1964 the press gave every president countless "free passes" -- going along with completely hiding from the public the fact that FDR lived in a wheelchair, minimizing Ike's heart attacks, never mentioning any of JFK's litany of serious health problems (much less his womanizing), etc.

Yet today even intra-party politics (Hillary v Obama) is full of bitterness and name calling, and the press plays a never-ending game of "gotcha".

How come? Is civil society really coming to an end? Three quick thoughts:

1) When the division of power is close tempers get hot, and to win the marginal vote that will bring their party victory and power people will do anything. On the other hand, when one party has an insurmountable advantage over the other, the opportune strategy for both sides (especially the minority) is "go along to get along". There's no reason to kill each other when there's nothing particularly urgent at stake.

In 1942, FDR's Democrats held 66 of 96 seats in the Senate and a 105-seat majority in the House. In 1963, JFK's Democrats equally dominated with 66 seats in the Senate and an 83-vote majority in the House. There was nothing at stake for either side worth "going to war" over. But for the last decade, with the electorate near evenly split and power see-sawing from election to election, that marginal vote has been worth going to war over. (See, "Florida, 2000".) So they have.

2) When real differences on the issues are big candidates are able to run on that and have no need to personalize things to motivate voters. Kennedy and Goldwater were worlds apart on the issues so they could get their votes by debating as friends. But as to Clinton and Obama, guess who are the two Senators out of all the 100 with the most similar voting records. Well, if the reason to vote for you instead of the other guy isn't the issues, then it has to be the person, or some higher moral cause that's worth fighting for ... or the person.... and you have to work hard to make sure the voters know that!

3) It's a myth that politics is more bitter now. Politics has always been bitter and dirty, and through most of US history more so than now. Back in the Golden Age of the Founding Fathers itself, while sitting in adjoining offices as members of George Washington's own cabinet, Alexander Hamilton used Treasury agents against Thomas Jefferson's allies, while Jefferson used State Department funds to bankroll press attacks on Hamilton and largely ruined Hamilton using a "honey pot" sting sex scandal. (As for the propriety of the press back then, and how it could turn on a favorite, see Jefferson's one-time good friend James Callendar) ... Oh, and just a little while later the Vice President of the United States shot his most vociferous political critic dead, then returned to his job of presiding over the Senate and duly finished out his term of office. Things are not so bad today. (Dick Cheney did not shoot Paul Krugman.)

So here's the bottom line answer: It is true that the press was largely indulgent of the president during the period 1932 to 1964, and people who grew up during that period took that to be the norm. But a larger view of history shows that period to aberrational both politically and economically in many ways due to the national crises of the Great Depression, World War II, and Stalin-era Cold War. (And there was plenty of bitter, underhanded, dirty politics even then, largely forgotten today).

National politics is back to normal now, that's all. And as long as its division of power remains close, expect it to remain bitter, playing to the emotions, and personal. It's only rational.