I know one has to be careful when one says that our political situation now is worse now than its ever been, because some historian will drag out analogies with the founding fathers or how nasty our politics were right before the Civil War, or during the Great Depression, and I’m not prepared to argue that case. But in recent memory, the state of our political discourse is certainly worse than its ever been. Congressional job approval has been descending for years, and in 2013 it actually went under 10%.
When did the downturn occur? That is, of course, open to debate. I personally think that a seminal event in the current trajectory was Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.”
If you don’t remember the Contract with America, let’s take a short stroll down memory lane. The year is 1994, two years into Bill Clinton’s first term, and New Gingrich, the House Minority Leader, sees the possibility of recapturing the House for the Republicans after forty years of Democratic rule. Democratic support has eroded substantially in the South, and mid-term elections for a first term President are usually an opportune time for the opposing party. The Contract — which included eight reforms the Republicans promised to enact, and ten bills they promised to bring to floor debate and votes — was originally hatched in the conservative Heritage Foundation. The Contract was a platter of red meat designed to appeal as viscerally as possible not to voters intellect, but to their emotions: it included a balanced budget amendment, a “truth-in-sentencing” anti-crime package along with restoration of the death penalty; slashing welfare benefits; limits on punitive damages and a “loser pays” provision for unsuccessful litigation; a prohibition from allowing U.S. troops to serve under United Nations command; capital gains cuts and unfunded mandate reform; and an amendment to the Constitution that would impose a 12 year limit on all members of Congress (six terms for Congressmen, two terms for Senators). The Contract was spectacularly successful, swinging 54 seats from the Democrats to the Republicans, thereby giving the Grand Old Party a 26 seat majority. The Republicans also gained nine seats in the Senate, swinging the upper house to a 52:48 majority.
But it wasn’t just the content of the Contract, it was the rhetoric accompanying it that was the real red meat. It was all about “traditional family values” — whatever those are; it was about replacing “career politicians” with “citizen legislators”; it was about requiring “personal responsibility” from all those black and Hispanic welfare cheats; it was about “middle class” tax cuts in capital gains rates (actually for those making $200,000 or more); it was about “common sense” legal reforms (mostly reforms that helped businesses at the expense of consumers). Certainly Gingrich and his friends at the Heritage Foundation weren’t the first to use rhetoric in their political aims, but they did so much better and with much less conscience than their contemporaries on the left.
It also helped to spawn the Fox News Channel and right wing talk radio, a phenomenon that accelerated after the September 11, 2001 attacks. It brought is Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, and of course, Rush Limbaugh. Roger Ailes’ Fox News Channel, which is essentially a branch of the Republican party, has thoroughly mastered the art of propaganda, beginning with their famous “fair and balanced” slogan. The essence of propaganda is, of course, to repeat something that is utterly without merit with full confidence. If there is a slight lean to port in the mainstream — or as Conservatives so love calling it, the “lamestream” media — then Fox News Channel’s list to starboard is so severe that it’s a miracle that the whole enterprise doesn’t just keel over. But you have to give Fox New Channel there due: while other media outlets have been striving for impartiality, there red meat approach to journalism has built them a loyal following, becoming the dominant cable news network in the United States, with more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined. In the years since it’s 1996 inception, Fox News Channel has perfected its particular brand of incendiary journalism, replete with its annual “War on Christmas” hysterics.
As an example of how Fox New operates, by the time time 2012 campaign rolled around, its pundits were fond of throwing around the word “socialism” and applying it to the Obama administration. For example, when Paul Ryan was announced as the Vice-Presidential nominee, his former mentor at the University of Miami in Ohio, Professor Richard Hart, accused Obama of “promoting socialism.”
Professor Hart is an idiot. Or more likely, he’s pretending to be an idiot. Professor Hart, he of the University’s economics department, surely knows that as conceived by Marx, “socialism” was a transitional period in the dialectic between Capitalism and Communism. But more to the point, as practiced in the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries, “socialism” was characterized by planned economies and state ownership of the “means of production.” It was the failure of economic planning that brought two hour lines to buy toilet paper in the former Soviet Union. If Obama were really a socialist, he would have promoted a single-payer health care system that essentially put private health insurers out of business, or at best “nationalized” them as part of the federal bureaucracy.
The truth is that Obama is no more a socialist than George W. Bush was a fascist. Yet, there were no mainstream Democrats calling Bush a fascist eight years ago, and you can imagine the howls of protest from the Republican party if they had. Informed Republicans know that Obama isn’t a socialist; they also know the emotional impact it has on the general public to call him one. So when Professor Hart said that Obama’s policies are “socialist,” it was a red herring, red meat, the reintroduction of the red scare.
If the gap between the rich and poor has been widening, then so has the gap between non-theists and the faithful. Especially the evangelical faithful. While attempting to “count” believers worldwide is a fallible endeavor, the numbers look something like the following:
|Shenism, Taoism and Chinese “traditional” religions||
|New thought religions||
The United States is, of course, a remarkably religious country, although religious identification has, contrary to popular belief, actually been declining in the years since the end of World War II.
In 2011, a CBS News poll found that 77% of adults in the United States still believed in angels. And that figure includes the atheists and agnostics among us. If we count just Christians the number rises to 88%; if we count only evangelicals, the number jumps to 95%. According to a Gallup poll, since 1997 somewhere between 72% and 83% of American adults still believe in a literal heaven and hell. In the year 2010, the Gallup organization polled adult Americans once again to ascertain how many of them believed that the Earth is literally 6000 years old and that humans were created essentially in their current form. The answer was 46%.
Given that we live in the year 2014, these statistics are remarkable. Given that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and the Universe about 13.8 billion, these beliefs are extraordinary. But this is the country we live in, perhaps the most technologically advanced country in the world, with almost half of the population believing literally in the Biblical story of creation.