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The Present in Politics: A Race to the Abyss

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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?”

Good question.

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About Joseph F. Cotto

  • Cannonshop,

    I agree with your analysis of the TEA Party, as well as the fact that smear campaigning had been around for long before the 1988 presidential election. During this, however, the level of vitriol which we currently see in political advertisements became more socially acceptable, which is why the Willie Horton ad is remembered as one of the most infamous in American political history.

    You are also right about much of the current atmosphere as a whole resulting from the tactics employed by radical activists during the 1960s and ’70s. Now that everyone has picked up on them, the left and right alike have been lowered to the level of Alinsky and his ilk. I believe that your closing thoughts on we, as a nation, getting the type of politicians which we deserve are totally and completely correct.

  • Cannonshop

    The hijack of the TEA Party movement is a little bit like the hijacking of the Conservative movements of the 1990s=the actors are even largely the same, as are the interests they actually support.

    1988 wasn’t really a marker year, though, Joe, people that weren’t going to vote for Dukakis weren’t going to vote for him BEFORE the phony scandal around the Willie Horton ad campaign.

    That campaign just provided an excuse for his loss. In local politics in the Southwest (where I grew up) “Smear” campaigning was a fixture, a common occurrance, frequently seen at every level during election years. All you had to do, was watch the television after school. (this was that wonderful period between 1980 and 1988, mind. our teevee came from Albequerque New Mexico, hardly on the bleeding edge, at that time, of american political influence…)

    Fact is, and you even wrote an earlier article on this, “Civility” has been largely remarkable for its absence in American Politics, rather than its presence.

    A custom, well…more often observed in the breach, you might say (paraphrasing and warping a line from Hamlet).

    A truer case could be made that the modern political scene is the natural outgrowth of the 1960’s and early 1970’s and the radicalism from THAT era. Particularly the tactics of the Yippies, Weather Underground, SLA, and SDS, influenced by the writings of guys like Saul Alinsky (“Rules for Radicals”), which to the discomfort of many on the left, their opponents have read and taken to heart as strategy.

    It’s kind of degenerated into “Politics as Pro Sports”, where winning is everything and caveat emptor on whether or not claims made during campaign season will be made good after an election.

    And THAT is the result of the Electorate themselves-us, in other words. You get the leadership you deserve. We apparently DESERVE Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, we apparently deserve courts that chop away at the fourth amendment (See a recent case in Indiana), Cops who kill formerly-active-marines in their own homes because of a wrong number on the warrant address (Pima County, Arizona), race-baiting Attorney Generals, tax-evading Secretaries of the Treasury, Nanny-state-Krischun-moralists who just wanna get a blowjob in D.C., and congressmen who break the tax-laws they, themselves, wrote (New York Congressman Rangel…)

    We have politics that we have worked hard to earn, politics of group identity, tribalism, hypocrisy, moral cowardice, dithering, blindly striking out, and prejudice. We have the politics of a culture too self-absorbed and too entitled to actually maintain the vigilance that Jefferson was talking about when he made the caution that “Liberty Requires Constant Vigilance”.

    The Rulers have given us wine, bread, and circuses to the point of bankrupting the nation, and have given us gilded chains and called them ‘freedom’, and we not only LET htem do it, many of us ASKED FOR THIS.