When did the American political system jump the shark?


Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

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59 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    The Alien and Sedition Acts.Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

      Yeah, I was going to say that’s the first post-Big Bang example of utter hypocrisy.

      If you want to start at the origin, the 3/5ths principle was pretty shark-jumpy in and of itself. Kinda hard to take compromise as a serious endeavor when it results in a straightfaced “cut the baby in half”.Report

  2. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    “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 too good to check, right? And even if it’s fake it’s probably accurate, right?Report

  3. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    George Wallace is actually an important part of American political history that nobody remembers. Everyone today thinks that the Democratic Party is the bastion of liberal progressiveness. What they don’t know is that this only really started in 1972–and if George Wallace hadn’t been shot it might not have started at all!Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by “liberal progressiveness” exactly, but I suspect that you’re forgetting a substantial portion of your American history, including people with names or initials like Wilson, FDR, and LBJ, all of whom were around before 1972. The southern Democrats and northern Democrats were, for much of the post-Civil War period (and hell, much of the pre-Civil War period), essentially two different parties. That was the case at least until the Dixiecrats began leaving the party in the late 40s. To some extent, it’s still true (Blue Dogs, Zell friggin’ Miller, etc.). So while Wallace was an important figure in the history of this country, and of the Democratic Party, progressivism in the Democratic party preceded him by decades.Report

      • Avatar Plinko says:

        I actually think DD is sorta right, but for the wrong reasons. The political realignments that started with the Civil Rights Era are maybe only now finishing up.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck says:

        That modern self-styled progressives have declared themselves the successors of LBJ’s “Great Society” ideals does not mean that those ideals were what brought George McGovern to the candidacy.

        Hell, even Wallace was calling for increases in Medicare and Social Security payments, as well as pulling all the troops out of Vietnam within 90 days of his taking office.

        Although you do make a good point about Johnson being an early example of the modern Democrat, in that he escalated American military involvement in an overseas hellhole to secure geopolitical benefits that were never fully defined.Report

  4. Avatar Alex Knapp says:

    The White House was built by slave labor. That is all you need know.Report

  5. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    For something to “Jump the Shark” means that its quality of the product goes on an irretrievable and irredeemable downward slope. You’re never going to take Fonzie seriously as a lovable tough guy again after he water-skis over a shark while on vacation in California.

    Despite all of the yuck discussed in the post, I’m not sure that we’re so far gone that we have to pronounce the whole of American politics irretrievable and irredeemable. Roman politics got pretty decadent during the later years of Tiberius’ reign, and while Claudius provided a few sober years, it didn’t get better again until after the Year of the Four Emperors. But it got better — which I offer as proof that it can get better for us, too.

    Hopefully it doesn’t take a crisis of that magnitude for us to come to our senses again. But yes, it probably will take a crisis of some kind.Report

  6. It’s hard for me to feel that we’ve fallen too very far when I consider the Trail of Tears or the treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Frankly, it takes very little effort to think of numerous appalling moral failures in America’s history. Not what you’d call “comforting,” but neither is it a particular indictment of America today.Report

  7. Avatar Francis says:

    Pick your poison: is the problem the end of a union of diverse states and the concurrent formation of a true federal govt? Then you pick 1860.

    The creation of the welfare state? Pick 1932.

    Explosion of federal debt? 1980.

    Recent increase in partisanship? 1992.

    We get the govt we deserve. We have collectively decided that we like being lied to and like hating the other guy. These are the politicians who win. Compromisers and truth-tellers get defeated. See, eg, George McGovern & G HW Bush.Report

  8. Avatar michael reynolds says:

    The problem with the comforting examples of the past is that we are supposed to grow and learn from the past, not replay it.

    It’s a bit like arguing that it’s equally normal for a 2 year-old and a 30 year-old to spit out their food and poop their pants. We’re more than two centuries in at this point: we should be making new mistakes, not the same ones.

    The Clinton impeachment was a bad one. No question. But our current difficulties flow from a single source: Ronald Reagan’s ability to convince otherwise intelligent people to believe in magic.

    We slipped the surly bonds of reason, and started to believe in magical synergies. Tax cuts would pay for themselves, and all we needed to do was cut “waste, fraud and abuse,” and the real problem was a welfare queen driving a cadillac not a baby boomer looking at retirement, and if we just stuck out our chins and stamped our feet and believed real hard everything would be fine.

    To this day this magical thinking dominates the GOP. It reminds me, oddly, of the French army at the start of WW1. If only we are pure of heart, aggressive, confident, sure of our own innate wonderfulness, and filled with elan, those machine guns and massed artillery won’t matter.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      The problem is that the constructs are hundreds (even thousands!) of years old, the humble agents themselves have but a handful of decades.

      I like the “we should take what we’ve learned from the last few millennia and apply it” attitude, though. I wish more folks had it.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      Why should we be surprised that we need to “keep learning the same lessons again” when our government is, by design, changed significantly every decade or so?Report

  9. Avatar tom van dyke says:

    Sullivan, Dionne, et al., would rather talk about anything but Barack Hoover Obama, and the current crisis. The election of such an clearly underqualified candidate and now manifestly incompetent president over racial lines qualifies as “jumping the shark” as anything.

    And the man once called the “first black president” remains deeply wounded by allegations that he made racially insensitive remarks during the campaign, like dismissing Obama’s South Carolina win by comparing it with Jesse Jackson’s victories there in the 1980s.

    “None of them ever really took seriously the race rap,” he told me. “They knew it was politics. I had one minister in Texas in the general election come up and put his arm around me.” This was an Obama supporter. “And he came up, threw his arm around me and said, ‘You’ve got to forgive us for that race deal.’ He said, ‘That was out of line.’ But he said, ‘You know, we wanted to win real bad.’ And I said, ‘I got no problem with that.’ I said it’s fine; it’s O.K. And we laughed about it and we went on.”

    Well, Bill may have laughed, But Hillary sure didn’t. We can only hope that now that we’ve done our penance for our disgraceful racial history, the republic will get serious about its actual governance again.


    • It genuinely disappoints me to see you trot out this deeply patronizing argument, TvD. I’ll leave it at that.Report

      • Avatar tom van dyke says:

        Aw, Elias, and let the lefties have all the fun? I’m flattered I’m held to a higher standard, but it’s hard to hold your fire when all around you are held to no standards atall.

        And in fact, my argument is sincere. I see a conscious subject-changing among the Sullivan-type crowd, nostalgia for the good old days when all it took was an offhand blast at Dubya [or Reagan, or Nixon!] to pass for original and cogent content.

        [Now it’s Palin, as if her importance holds a candle to BHO and the current crises. And for the record, she’s still better than the Dem VP nominee of 2004.]

        And I’m quite sincere about my own nomination for the “jump the shark” moment, where the first black president was demonized and demagogued on behalf of the second. I can only hope that it means we’ve got that out of our system.

        I found the tone and tenor of those quoted in the OP and most of the comments in their worldly pseudo-wisdom about the decline of the US polity to be predictably banal. I still believe the republic is vital, and will find its way again, contra these Crabby Appletons.

        I do happen to agree with you on the Clinton impeachment, Elias, although it was over the lying, not the sex. I think the republic handled it well, a quick “trial,” a quick and overwhelming vote for acquittal in the Senate, and most if not all of the GOP “House managers” and others involved in the prosecution of the impeachment tossed out of office by the electorate. [And Gingrich never recovered either.]

        I would add add footnote that both The Borking and the sliming of Clarence Thomas set the stage for it in the ’80s. The GOP took it to 11, however, and that was very bad business for the republic.Report

        • My disappointment only concerned your chalking up Obama’s victory to white guilt. I had thought this kind of thinking beneath you.Report

          • Avatar tom van dyke says:

            Race was involved, and I showed how it was played on the Clintons. Geez, Elias.Report

          • Avatar Koz says:

            Who said anything about white guilt? It’s about the racial aspirations of liberals, allowing themselves to get caught up in the hype. Basically, when you get down to it, the problem is always liberals.Report

            • Avatar BSK says:

              So everyone white person who voted for Obama is either full of guilt or just caught up in the hype? Good to know! I thought I voted for other reasons, but I’m glad you cleared that up for me.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke says:

                Why are y’all so determined to misread me? There certainly was some white liberal guilt, and there was liberal race-baiting, as illustrated by what they did to the Clintons.

                But I wasn’t referring to the general election. The GOP was so unpopular and McCain was so pathetic that any tomato can could have beat him.

                And one did. 😉

                And for the record, although I didn’t vote for him based on his leftism, I thought it was cool we elected a black guy after our shameful racial history. Just not this guy.Report

              • Avatar BSK says:

                Couldn’t you say the same thing about all the folks who refused to vote for Obama, and whom would never vote for a black president, because of race? Give with one hand, take away with another…Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

                Barry is a Marxist thug, a ‘community organizer.’ Check out his family and his family’s friends, they’re all Marxists of one stripe or another.
                And you people who voted for Barry are responsible for his efforts in wrecking the American economy. You voted for a Third World man and he’s given you a Third World country.Report

              • Bob, I’m starting to suspect you’re a deep cover liberal working in conjunction with Balloon Juice’s commentariat to expose the League commentariat as closet conservatives.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke says:

                Would Balloon Juice see “Marxist thug community organizer” as a bad thing?

                Not to worry, Mr. Carr—I see zero danger that even the commentariat here could ever be viewed as generally “conservative.” Such folks piss into the wind here, not with it.

                As for the community-organizer-in-chief, like the man said, I cosign, albeit with a little more gentleness.


              • Avatar Chris says:

                Ya know, one almost wonders why, if people like Tom, Bob, and Koz (and Tom and Koz, at least, are pretty boilerplate) are going to continually say that the Democrats are Marxists, there aren’t any actual Marxists among the Democrats. I mean, deep down, I know that it’s because the people who actually vote for Democrats wouldn’t vote for actual Marxists, but still, it seems like if Democrats are going to constantly be accused of Marxism, a few actual Marxists could slip in unnoticed. That seems like it’d be easier than actually asking the Tom’s, Bob’s, and Koz’ of this world to actually read some Marx, at least.Report

              • Avatar Koz says:

                You know, I’ve answered this one before. Folk Marxism isn’t necessarily Marxism.

                Folk Marxism is the impulse toward redistribution as the solution to the perceived problem of economic or social inequality. Those with that impulse may or may not have gotten it from Marxist or Communist sources.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke says:

                On behalf of all the folks you’ve lumped together and attacked, Chris, I thank you for poisoning the well yet further.



                is at issue.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Tom, a.) calling it Marxism in reference to a center-to-center-left party is poisoning the well. I’ve done nothing more egregious than that, to be sure, and b.) that article suggests that by siding with labor to an extent that labor itself felt woefully insufficient is a sign that Obama is a radical. I take that argument as seriously as it warrants, which is to say, no more seriously than I take silliness about Marxim.

                Koz, yeah, I’ve seen you make the point. It’s silly in that it’s both confusing (redistribution in the abstract and Marxism are hardly one in the same) and inaccurate. But whatever, man. I can take Tom seriously, even if he crosses back and forth over the line dividing the rational the absurd and paranoid, but you are impossible to take seriously, because you’re a myopic partisan hack.Report

              • Avatar Koz says:

                Whatever. Partisan or not, just about everything I’ve written here has come to pass. We should expect that between behemoths like the GOP and the Demo’s, and the people loosely affiliated with either one, that political responsibility is murky and progress is halting. It actually surprises me quite a bit how few loose ends there really are. I guess it’s a measure of the comprehensiveness of lib-Demo failure that their talking points have such little intellectual respectability.Report

              • Avatar BSK says:

                Can someone explain to me what is so socialist or generally appalling about community organizing?

                You’d think that small-government, pro-free-market conservatives would support efforts by citizens to mobilize without involving the government…Report

              • Avatar Koz says:

                I agree. In fact, of all the heroes of the Left pantheon, Saul Alinsky is the only one I have any respect for at all.

                The thing to understand about Barry isn’t just that he was a community organizer, but that he was a failed community organizer. This is pretty clear from two fairly long pieces on the subject, IIRC one was in The New Republic, the other was in The Nation.

                In any case, the point of being a community organizer is that you actually empower the community. But Barry has always been about Barry. For me, Barry’s past as a failed community organizer is the fundamental interpretive key to his Presidency. In fact, that’s why I disagree with some of Bob Cheeks’ more outlandish assertions. Barry is not a bad President because he’s a Kenyan third-world Muslim Communist, he’s a bad President because he’s a liberal Democrat. And in our current situation, that’s really really really bad.Report

              • Avatar dexter says:

                The moles are everywhere. The have person writing under “smargalcilious” over at From that calls President Obama “Barry the African” and while he is not as smart as Robert, he is just as weird.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

                Chris, you seem hung up on the idea of me referencing Himself as as Marxist, or the entire spectrum of derailed ‘democrats’ as a gaggle of national socialists-socialists-Marxists-communists, at least a people determined to achieve the ideologically centralized utopia through republican means.

                Actually, I think Barry and his coevals are in a pre-Marxist phase.
                And by pre-Marxist phase I mean that it may be necessary to destroy the final vestiges of the republican remnent. And, I think you’d agree he’s doing an excellent job of doing just that. If my analysis is accurate Barry’s one brilliant dude, though the American people themselves have experienced a significant moral-political-intellectual decline since those halcyon revolutionary days and made themselves pretty easy pickins’.
                However, this is still a very problematic situation for the Dude. If he puts too many out of work he may not get re-elected and will have to wait a cycle or, God forbid, another ‘Chosen One’. If he’s re-elected he can continue to destroy the economy, force people onto state sponsored ‘programs’ and gain political support (Barry feeds the starving or houses the homeless or give us his ‘stash’! Kind of like FDR; all socialists see themselves as God like, at least in the sense of doing the people’s will, which as you know is one method of justifying all sorts of State sponsored atrocities.

                I think Barry is seeking to create a condition of ‘alienation’ where the person, now out of work, or worried about being displace, is alienated from himself, his nature, and can not create himself through his work (yes, I know this is a pretty standard line-of-meaning fare from Fruerbach to Marx).
                In this state the worker’s alienation expresses itself in a social context, it does not just affect him but rather all of society and opens the door to the possibility of the much yearned for social revolution. “The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same self-alienation…where the proletariat feels annihilated in its self-alienation.” Marx, The Holy Family.

                Barry’s revolution, which may not be violent, or violent only in the ‘hood’ will not only re-create American society it will bring forth the new “Socialist Man.” I’m sure that somewhere in this scenerio Barry sees Himself as Mr. Big.Report

              • Avatar Koz says:

                A lot of white liberals would have voted for him anyway. But the hype and the bullshit that they believed (and Barry believed) has changed our politics and probably not for the better.Report

              • Avatar BSK says:

                But there is always hype and bullshit. Why are we singling out the hype and bullshit around Obama? Do you really think it was different? Or is it because it was something that white people cannot generate and, thus, somehow seems out of bounds?

                For centuries, white men have reaped the benefits of privilege in the presidency. But we just saw this as business as usual. Suddenly, when a black guy potentially benefits from HIS race, it’s evidence of our political system reaching the point of no return? Please.Report

  10. Avatar rj says:

    Another way to discuss this is not to spot the point at which we became consumed with silly stuff, but the point at which it became impossible for the political system to function.

    I would say that the way we talk about taxes makes it impossible to conduct policy on almost any topic. Since we have a fear of spending and “big government” programs but still have a populace who wants an active government, policy gets done in the tax code.

    We get “targeted tax breaks” instead of cash grants for the sole reason that giving people money in one way is welfare, but if the check comes from a different agency, it isn’t.

    And what if we want to get rid of a targeted tax break? That’s a tax increase! A majority of the House and enough Senators to filibuster have signed a pledge to do no such thing under any circumstances. The rest of the budget is up for reconsideration, but tax deductions are forever, apparently.

    As a nation, we have been in worse trouble before. Much worse trouble. Like splitting in two kind of trouble. Or having the White House burned down by the British trouble. But the total inability of one of our two major parties to engage AT ALL on one half of the budget equasion has left us unable to address almost anything facing the country today.

    I’d say that the day we jumped the shark was the day Norquist pledge signers got the majority in the house and 40 in the Senate.Report

    • Avatar rj says:

      I should also say that intransigence on talking about taxes feeds into the larger structural issues in Congress: endless secret holds on nominees for unrelated issues, the de facto supermajority needed in the Senate, etc.Report

    • Avatar Koz says:

      “But the total inability of one of our two major parties to engage AT ALL on one half of the budget equasion has left us unable to address almost anything facing the country today.”

      Who’s we, kemosabe? It looks to me like the GOP can engage the expenditures issue just fine, and if we’re lucky maybe even a few D’s can too.Report

      • Avatar rj says:

        I don’t think that’s fair. The budget wheelers and dealers are arguing about whether there should be $3 of cuts for every $1 of revenue or $4 of cuts. Dems already agreed to cuts during the shutdown brinksmanship not long ago, with no movement on revenues at all. Sure, the media wants to play this as a “pox on both houses” thing, but you just can’t find equivalence here.Report

        • Avatar Koz says:

          It’s the cuts that count, and the Demo’s didn’t offer any cuts in the shutdown battle. To be precise, they negotiated a deal to cut ~$50 billion in spending from a $3.8 trillion budget. That is obviously going nowhere. We need cuts. Revenue is what it is.

          From the D’s pov, I wouldn’t be worried about whether it’s $3 or $4 in cuts. I wouldn’t be counting on the $1 in revenue.Report

          • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

            I’ll agree to cuts for the middle class the moment Wall Street agrees to give back their ill-gotten gains.Report

            • Avatar Koz says:

              The Biden group is going to come up with some recommendations soon. I’ll be interested to hear what you think.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

                Well, when a centrist to center-right party and a right-wing party get together, the rich are spared and the poor are fucked. So, I’m sure I’ll hate most of it.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          I remember the cuts from the budget being draconian and extreme one week and, the next week, having it revealed as laughable non-cuts that prove the unseriousness of the Republican party.

          While I am certain that the Republican party is deeply unserious, I’m not sure that the whole “draconian!” and “extreme!” thing indicates a whole lot of good faith on the part of Team Blue.Report

  11. I actually agree with Andrew. I left the U.S. in 2006 and just got back a few months ago, and there has been a noticeable shift. Don’t get me wrong, the Lewinsky affair was pretty ridiculous (as was coverage of Rosa Lopez buying groceries, the Carter Family, Oliver Sipple’s sexual preferences, etc.) but in the last few years these sort of non-serious stories have been elevated to leading news items. It probably has something to do with the Internet punctuating whatever equilibrium existed before.Report

  12. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Anyone who thinks it is anything other than Monicagate etc. is just not being serious. That is what it was. Period.Report

  13. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    I suspect that there was a minor golden age of reporting due to the establishment of a broadcast oligarchy in the 20th century. An oligarchy can afford to uphold standards, but once you introduce competition, you have to give the people what they want in order to maintain mass-market appeal, and this is not compatible with standards, at least not very high standards.

    Prior to the broadcast oligarchy, local newspapers competed with each other, and you had yellow journalism. Then the broadcast media grabbed everyone’s attention, and they could maintain standards because there were only a few options. This doesn’t mean that their reporting was any good, necessarily, but there was no one to challenge them, so they at least lied politely. Then cable news, talk radio, and the Internet broke the power of the broadcast oligarchy, and we’re back to yellow journalism.

    I’m not entirely convinced that this is correct (why didn’t the broadcast networks compete more vigorously?), but I think there might be something to it.Report