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The great American refusal

Barack Obama’s healthcare-reform bill is a real legislative achievement. But the toxic atmosphere surrounding its passage reflects widespread denial of the very legitimacy of his presidency. This is a new twist on a story that began in the 1960s, says Godfrey Hodgson.

There was a time, during the presidency of James Monroe (1817-25), that came to be called the “era of good feelings”. When Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, tens of millions of Americans shared his own dream: that after the rage and bitterness of the previous administration, another such era would return.

Nothing of the kind has occurred: as the president’s health-reform plan struggles past the finishing-post, partisan bitterness is sharper than ever. Washington veterans cannot remember a time when the political atmosphere was as noxious as it is today.

There were disgraceful scenes at the Capitol as the Senate health-insurance reform bill - important, though a much depleted version of what the president originally wanted - passed narrowly by 219-212, and without a single Republican vote in favour. Republican congressmen conducted frenzied protesters from the balcony of the House of Representatives as if they were bandleaders. African-American congressmen were insulted and even spat upon. The Republican leadership shouted defiance as their followers screamed “socialism!” at the president of the United States. 

Such behaviour was all the more striking as the president had “reached across the aisle” in search of bipartisan action to address the national emergency of millions of Americans facing their daily lives without the security of health-protection (see James A Morone & Lawrence R Jacobs, "American sickness: diagnosis and cure", 16 October 2007). He has found virtually no response from Republicans. The shrill abuse of the rightwing blogosphere; the relentless hostility of the conservative shock-jocks and TV broadcasters; and now the fervent partisans of the “tea-party” movement - all this creates a sort of competitive cacophony of suspicious denunciation of the president and liberals of every stripe. Their absolutism of temperament is more than matched by many liberals, who - already bruised by the failure of Barack Obama to live up to the hopes raised during his candidacy - refuse to acknowledge the existence of wisdom, patriotism or even reason in any of their conservative adversaries (see “Barack Obama and America”, 12 March 2010).

Some analysts express the belief that the passage of the weakened healthcare-reform bill will help to clear the fetid air. The precedent of the financial-stimulus package in February 2009 suggests otherwise. There too Congress passed significant legislation, albeit the bare minimum demanded by the scale of the economic crisis; but the result has if anything only intensified the atmosphere of partisan animosity in Washington.

It is just possible that tempers were as sour and enmities as raw during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s zealous pursuit of “reds” in the fear-filled early 1950s. But I was in Washington during the Vietnam years - indeed for much of the time in the cockpit that was the Washington Post’s newsroom - and even at that period of national convulsion the atmosphere did not reach the sulphurous toxicity of 2010 (see Ronald Brownstein, The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America [Penguin, 2008]).

There are, I suggest, two distinct though related reasons for this “era of ill feelings”. The first is the consequence of a historic change in the character of political-party conflict in the United States, and its system of reference. The second is the widespread sense on the part of many conservatives that the two most recent Democratic presidents - Bill Clinton and Barack Obama - lack legitimacy.

An epic dissolution

In the late 1960s, the difference between the United States’s two great parties seemed to me rooted in the pivotal events of the 1860s. The origin of the great fissures between Republicans and Democrats - I would explain at the time to non-Americans - lay in the civil war, the emancipation of slaves, the defeat and humiliation of the Confederacy, the failure of reconstruction and the re-establishment of what was euphemistically called “redemption” (more truly the system of reimposed racial subjection known as “Jim Crow”).

In 2010, the key to understanding the new party conflict seems to me to lie precisely in that 1960s era. The civil-rights movement tore the “solid south” to pieces, and the peace movement inspired by the Vietnam war did the same to  much of the rest of the country. But the anti-war movement was also part of a wider social-political rebellion against all structures of entrenched authority - in the bedroom and classroom, the pulpit and the armed forces, in the political hierarchy with the presidency at its apex. Millions were drawn in to this exhilarating whirlwind; but - as the election of Richard M Nixon in 1968 had demonstrated - the attempt to hold on to the solid ground of patriotism, order, security and hierarchy was helping to invigorate a new conservatism (see Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America [Scribner, 2008]).

Before the 1960s, each of the two major parties was an unwieldy coalition of incoherent groups and voices. The master politician of the 1930s, Franklin D Roosevelt, had forged a “Roosevelt coalition” out of some of these fragments - reactionary southerners, the trade unions, urban bosses, the northern working class, and a small but influential elite of progressive intellectuals - and in doing so created the modern Democratic Party. The ideology of the Republican Party was less dramatically contradictory, though moderate and even liberal Republicans existed in significant numbers.

Before the eruptions of the 1960s, Americans rejoiced that their politics did not follow the European model, where parties were locked into rooted left-right ideological conflict that reflected in turn deep divisions of class and life-chances. (I well remember the first time I went to interview Robert F Kennedy in his vast office in the justice department. He made the argument that the United States was too big, too disparate and too divided by history to be able to afford parties organised (and divided) by ideology. To my surprise, the reputedly pragmatic attorney-general - then at the vortex of the civil-rights movement - pulled out of the lower drawer of his enormous desk a shoebox full of five-by-eight cards on which he had been laboriously collecting pronouncements by political scientists on the point.) 

The moment is made all the more piquant by the fact that the administration Robert Kennedy he served, and even more its successor led by Lyndon B Johnson, brought to an abrupt end the non-ideological period in American party history. The moment of that shift can be pinpointed: Johnson’s signature of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. As he signed it, he turned to an aide and murmured: “There goes the south”. And indeed, the once solidly Democratic south was lost over the next generation.

No doubt the process was inevitable. Indeed in presidential elections it had already started. But from the late 1960s on, southern conservatives flocked into the Republican Party. Moderate, let alone liberal Republicans became ever rarer. African-Americans in the south began to vote in significant numbers. The internal balance of the Democratic Party shifted as it became more of a “rainbow coalition”, with the numbers of women, blacks and Hispanics growing and those of white males proportionally declining.

A grand illusion

This transformation of the parties was the deeper context of Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980, and by almost as large a majority as Johnson had won over the conservative Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964. Reagan’s electoral victory was - like Barack Obama’s - the product both of short-term contingencies and the maturation of deeper shifts in society (among the former were the humiliations of Jimmy Carter’s response to the Tehran hostage- crisis and of the gasoline-lines that exposed America’s new dependence on imported oil).

The strong showing in 1968 among northern working-class voters of George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, had already served warning that the “Roosevelt coalition” was cracked (see Dan T Carter, Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (Louisiana State University Press, 2000). Reagan’s victory seemed to confirm that the new conservative movement that had been gathering strength since the mid-1960s - in great part as a reaction to the great Vietnam-war and black uprisings and all they could be made to signify - had won a decisive victory (see Donald Critchlow, The Conservative Ascendancy:How the GOP Right Made Political History [Harvard University Press, 2007]).

Amid the euphoria, however, many vocal conservative politicians, commentators and activists made a serious (if understandable) error: they persuaded themselves that something called a “Reagan revolution” had taken place. It seemed plausible: after all, from the later 1970s the liberal orthodoxies were everywhere - in the law, in economics, in corporate business and in politics - under attack. It was all too easy to see Reagan’s victory as a “tipping-point”, the moment of an electoral realignment like those of 1912 or 1932. Liberals had been routed; their theories discredited; their morale shattered; their era, over (see America In Our Time: From World War II to Nixon - What Happened and Why [1976; Princeton University Press, 2005]).

But Reagan’s victory in 1980, notwithstanding the handsome majority, was in fact neither absolute nor decisive. The proportion of Americans who called themselves liberals may have been declining steadily, but the proportion who cherished some at least of the ideals of the new deal and the Kennedy/Johnson years remained more solid than many conservatives were willing to admit. The proof came in 1992 when, amid recession, a majority voted to instal Bill Clinton in the White House rather than Reagan’s former vice-president George HW Bush. Here too there were contingencies at work: Bush was himself a reversion in many respects to an older, less ideological Republicanism and therefore suspect to conservatives, and the strong intervention of the millionaire candidate H Ross Perot also damaged him. But the notion of a definitive “Reagan revolution” had been dealt a painful blow to its proponents.

A state of paralysis

Something happened from the beginning of Bill Clinton’s administration that seems in retrospect also an augury: the wild and vicious targeting of the new president with smears that he was corrupt, a drug-dealer, even a murderer. These acquired such persistence and vehemence throughout his presidency that they led Hillary Clinton to talk of a “vast rightwing conspiracy” against her husband.

There was no conspiracy, in the sense a criminal court would recognise. But what is significant in political terms is that the depth and the character of the accusations revealed that many conservatives did not accept the verdict of the polls. They thought that Bill Clinton’s occupancy of the White House defied the mandate of heaven.

Then, after the knife-edge election of 2000 and the drama of the Florida “chads”, the presidential election was in effect decided by a single vote: that of a Republican-appointed member of the Supreme Court who decided Bush vs Gore in favour of the Republicans. It was a moment potent with political as well as legal symbolism: for ever since Democrats in the Senate, led by Ted Kennedy, had in 1987 blocked a conservative nominee Robert Bork (in a process subsequently known as “borking”), appointments to the court had been acridly politicised. In 1991, the Senate hearings on the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court set a new low level for scurrility. For years the two parties could hardly agree to replenish the federal bench when vacancies occurred.

The dispute over the presidential election of 2000 gave liberals a taste of the frustrations - and intoxicating pleasures - of denying the very legitimacy of George W Bush’s presidency. The forensic scrutiny of the details of what had happened in Florida fuelled books and films and consumed energies for years after he had entered the White House.

The numbing effect of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 briefly suggested that another “turning-point” might be at hand, as the nation drew closer together and the president’s declaration of a “great war on terror” was comparatively little challenged. But mid the war’s failures and disasters, and the administration’s unpleasant authoritarian streak, were soon to restore and consolidate the divisions between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. American political hearts turned ever more bitter.

The election of Barack Obama felt to many like a healing moment. Those who from the start (in an echo of the Clinton pattern) spread rumours that he had been born outside the United States, or is a “secret” Muslim, or a communist had no intention of participating in any such dream. Their adamantine refusal of the president’s legitimacy is much more widely shared across the “tea-party” faction and in much of the media. This is on vivid display in the toxic hatreds even at the very heart of the Capitol and in the instant of Obama’s greatest legislative achievement thus far.

In a parliamentary system, the government can act decisively so long as it controls a majority in the legislature; thus, even rancorous division need not lead to stasis and paralysis. In the American presidential system with its separation of powers, a party that refuses at heart to accept the legitimacy of the other side can effectively block the functioning of government (see “The American political system: ruin and reform”, 11 February 2010). 

True, legislative successes both increase the authority of those responsible and can make the creation of a new consensus possible. But if much of America refuses to accept the basic legitimacy of their president as a matter of course, the American political system will remain what it has become - paralysed, and incapable of reacting adequately to national needs. 

 

About the author

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. He is the author of The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009).

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Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. His most recent book is The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009)

His earlier books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007)


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