When did the American political system jump the shark?
That’s the question Andrew Sullivan’s asking his readers in response to an E.J. Dionne article in which the Washington Post columnist says Weinergate was, for him, the point of no return, when he realized our system was “decadent.” Andrew thinks it was sometime between the ’06 torture vote and the ’08 Palin pick. Many Dish readers go with the Clinton impeachment, others cite the Palin pick. PM Carpenter says it’s hard to pin down with much precision, but intimates he’d go with Bush v. Gore. All worthy nominees.
But the whole exercise has me wondering — has American politics, decadent as it is, ever truly been anything but? Andrew Sprung is skeptical:
I am wary, though, of the decline narrative. It’s hard to take the measure of an era, or put bounds around a given set of years as an “era,” and harder yet to peg that era within a longer narrative. “You are too shallow, Hastings, much too shallow,/To sound the bottom of the after-times” (Henry IV, Part 2, IV ii). That’s true for all of us.
But as E.D. has noted, we all have a tendency, at least to some degree, towards nostalgia. Even if we think we know better. Owing to Burke, it’s long been considered an especially conservative characteristic. Maybe so — as long as we’re talking small-c. But I’ve been around the liberal block enough times by now to have heard enough paeans to the grand liberal paradise that was America in the days before Nixon to have my doubts.
So it might be worthwhile to look at these proposed cut-off points with some skepticism and historical memory. At first, Dionne’s is seemingly the easiest to shrug away; powerful man in using penis irresponsibly shocker! Yawn. But let’s recognize that it’s not so much the Weiner as the reaction to the Weiner that has Dionne feeling so dour:
Now, I am always wary of those who do what I’m about to do next: Take a tawdry sex scandal that people read about because we like to read about tawdry sex scandals, and use it to make some larger point.
But the Weiner episode marked the culmination of several months during which other sideshows involving outrageous male behavior — John Ensign and John Edwards come to mind — dominated news coverage at a moment when our country’s future really is on the line. […]
Okay, most of us will always pay attention to sex stories, and apocalyptic fears are usually a form of paranoia. But we’re a superpower with big economic problems. We’re acting like a country that has all the time in the world to dance around our troubles by indulging in ideological fantasies and focusing on the behavioral fantasies of wayward politicians — who, by the way, keep creating opportunities for distraction.
The advent over the past half-century of so many news forms of media renders historical comparisons to the present rather difficult. There has never before been so many ways for politicians to act foolishly or for the people to work themselves into a lather of put-on outrage and self-righteous indignation. Or just plain schadenfreude.
Granting all of that, the question becomes whether or not America has previously occupied itself with comparably frivolous and tawdry nonsense, despite Impending Doom, well, impending. Those with a more encyclopedic knowledge of American history will have to offer us their 2 cents; my impression is that while we hardly were always paragons of civic seriousness, the contemporary political conversation is sillier and more divorced from reality than it’s ever been. We can blame the internet, the consolidation of media, the creation of “infotainment,” or those damned kids and their skateboards and rap music. Your mileage may vary.
It may be a bit much, though, to look to CNN, Politico and the Opinion sections of the New York Times as the full and total barometer of democratic health. We slip from time to time into overestimating the political media’s influence — members of said media are more prone to this slip-up than most, for obvious reasons. David Brooks likes to say that more people in America own pet ferrets than watch Fox News; I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s one of the very few things David Brooks has said that I’ve liked, and I’m hesitant to strip it from him just yet.
Turning to Sullivan’s choices, I think the case is even weaker.
Torture: without a doubt, this is one of the ugliest and most shameful chapters in American history. But it’s hardly without precedent. It’s little-remembered today, but despite the breathless condemnations of Bush’s “enhanced interrogation” as breaking with American tradition, the sad fact is that American servicemen have tortured on orders before.
Back then — a tad more than 100 years before Cheney took us to “the dark side” — Americans in the Philippines subjected that country’s insurgents to what they called the “water cure,” a slightly more barbaric version of our own water-boarding. Bad as Bush’s torture regime was, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that the behavior in the Philippines was worse; Bush and co. at least had the decency to deny, lie, obfuscate and prevaricate before going the Medieval And Proud! route.
And Palin? I think that by a comfortable distance, this is the least compelling example of decay. What is Sarah Palin, really, that Dan Quayle was not? (Charismatic?) I suppose we can assume that Quayle knew his Revolutionary Era history — but have we yet seen Sarah Palin spell? Sarah Palin is certainly no Margaret Thatcher, but Quayle was no Jack Kennedy. I suppose one could argue that Palin holds a populist menace that Quayle never mustered; but however surreal and inexplicable Palin’s (much overestimated) popularity may appear, the fact is that we’ve had farcical demagogues achieve unsettling heights before. Huey Long and George Wallace, anyone?
That leaves us with the Clinton impeachment and Bush v. Gore, respectively.
Regarding the latter, even if we accept the Supreme Court’s ruling as an act of brazen partisanship, the fact remains that we’ve previously had (at least) one Presidential election “stolen” in America history — and that one resulted in the completion of one of the most morally odious abdications of responsibility in our government’s history. Throw as many of Bush’s sins against the wall as you’d like — leave some for me! — and the resulting mess still can’t compare to the nearly 100 years of misery that wracked the South after 1876. All so Rutherford B. Hayes could do whatever he did as President. I’m sure some among you know in some detail; we all have nerdy skeletons in the closet.
It’s the Clinton impeachment, then, that stands out most glaringly as a bizarre, watershed moment in American political history. The Anthony Weiner saga turned to 11. A chapter of our recent history that, it seems to me, many of us are all too happy to forget. In retrospect, it appears not unlike an embarrassing youthful indiscretion — a grotesquery from that curious period of American history after the Wall fell but while the Towers stood tall, when we weren’t much sure what to do with ourselves. (And as Clinton knows better than most, where there’s idleness, sin is rarely far behind.) But much as we might hope to tell ourselves otherwise through omission or denial, the record shows that only the second Presidential impeachment proceeding to take place in American history centered around a blowjob.
And while I may not know what the definition of “is” is, I’m reasonably comfortable in saying that that’s pretty damn decadent.