The modern phase of American politics began, at least from my perspective, midway through the 1988 presidential election. Its opening salvo was an unforgettable one, that being the now-infamous Willie Horton television commercial which detailed said criminal’s savage actions against an unsuspecting couple. While not a single iota of the information presented was fabricated, many saw its overtones — with Horton being a black man and the couple caucasian — as an audacious form of race baiting on behalf of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush’s campaign staff. Running against the man who had temporarily released Horton from prison, Michael Dukakis, an unabashedly hardline modern liberal who served three tumultuous terms as governor of Massachusetts, Bush defeated him by an unexpected landslide margin, with most pollsters and analysts agreeing that the ad was largely to thank for this.
Since that fateful autumn of ’88, smear campaigns have crawled out from underneath the dinner table and transmitted themselves through the airwaves to millions of television sets across the fruited plains. This intensified with the dawn of the 1990s as listenership to talk radio programs exploded due to their total deregulation, allowing stations to broadcast political opinions of a certain sort without the need for any counterbalance whatsoever. While the original pioneers of this medium were members of the reactionary right, those on the radical left soon joined in, and it was not long until the profiteers of peril were successfully in business, feeding off of not only each other’s hatred, but those of their listeners, the majority of which were driven to believe that their respective ways of life were at stake in every succeeding election.
While the odd hybrid of the eventual social acceptance of televised smear campaigns and the sheer hyperbole expounded by the profiteers made for an increasingly volatile political process, all bets were called off after 2005′s Hurricane Katrina disaster. In the months leading up to the next year’s midterm elections, left-wing television muckrakers began referring to incumbent president George W. Bush — H.W.’s son, for those somehow not in the know — as a “fascist”, and respected intellectuals even publicly fantasized about assassinating him. With modern liberal ideologue Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election, the far-right wasted no time in picking up on their opposite numbers’ strategies. Many radio hosts and influential Internet columnists began cooking up rumors of, amongst other things, Obama not being a United States citizen and, in a nutshell, crypto-communist-Marxist-Maoist-Islamist hellbent on enacting a new world order of some variety or another.
The feelings of intense rage derived from this nonsense heavily impacted the 2010 midterm elections, with unprecedented levels of totally baseless rhetoric being thrown at individual candidates by their respective opponents. While the Republican Party managed to gain an impressive majority in the House of Representatives, it fell short of victory in the Senate due to the election of fringe activists in many primaries by incensed, irrational voters. The recently formed TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party movement, which was intended to be a grassroots network of concerned citizens devoted to restoring fiscal conservatism at all levels of government, became hijacked by extremists demanding rightist purity from elected officials, and those aspiring to become them, stopping at nothing to pursue a radical agenda including, for starters, the abolition of minimum wage laws and thorough gutting of Social Security. Newly minted legislators loyal to the TEA Party formed a caucus of their own in Congress, bringing great headaches to a bipartisan consensus of American politicos and voters alike.
All of this has left many asking, “Where do we go from here?”