Blogs > HNN > Does Our Culture Condemn Us to Endure these Nasty, Partisan campaigns?

Nov 1, 2008 1:44 pm

Does Our Culture Condemn Us to Endure these Nasty, Partisan campaigns?

As the campaign winds down, and speculation about how the next president will govern intensifies, a cloud continues to hang over the campaign. Once again, we are hearing complaints about how nasty and idiotic American politics is. The two nominees, both of whom secured their respective party nominations as bridge-building centrists have campaigned mostly as narrow partisans. Senator John McCain, in particular, has seen his reputation for moderation and decency blackened as he, his running mate, and many Republican operatives have run a slash-and-burn campaign. And while Barack Obama has benefited by calmly hovering above the fray, he has shown an ability to counterpunch effectively. He has cleverly but manipulatively dismissed many legitimate criticisms as smears. Moreover, his approach to the financial meltdown has been as simplistic and demagogic as McCain’s. Claiming, as he did in his effective, compelling 30 minute primetime infomercial, that the market crash is simply the result of the last eight years of governing is partisan history in a vacuum. It ignores the preconditions that emerged during the Clinton 1990s and pretends that there were no Democrats in bed with Wall Street or overriding bankers’ judgments in granting mortgages willynilly. But in considering a campaign that ended up being more overheated than either candidate initially promised, it is worth wondering, were they doomed to fail? Can we expect reasonable, civil, and centrist politics in an age of excess?

When critics mourn American politics’ increasing nastiness, the usual suspects include the media’s headline-driven hysteria and polarizing black-and-white approach to news, talk radio’s demagoguery, and the blogosphere’s viciousness. Others note the scramble for relatively few swing voters in a divided society and this election’s high stakes. Yet culture counts too, especially popular culture. Today’s no-holds-barred, decadent culture encourages a sensationalist and indulgent politics.

While conservatives love to blame the amoral and liberal media, America’s hedonism is a joint accomplishment, rooted in the American dream, intensified since Ronald Reagan’s 1980s. This anomaly is one of conservatism’s great blind spots. The prosperity Reagan helped unleash triggered a wave of materialism; the national revival Reagan celebrated spread an epidemic of individualism and libertinism which has weakened the nation’s social and moral fabric. Liberals and conservatives each see themselves as more virtuous than their opponents. Yet neither has a monopoly on morality; personal virtue does not correlate with political views. As Sarah Palin’s family makes clear, rates of pre-marital sex, divorce, or even trashy movie-watching do not correspond to the overused red state versus blue state paradigm.

Amid the loud, lurid carnival that constitutes so much American popular culture, with so many distracted by shopping 24/7, politics must compete with modern America’s burlesque for attention. In a world of caricatures, with too many consumed by the desire for goods rather than for “the good,” politicians feel pressed to lead by slinging simplistic slogans rather than confronting complex realities. As the stock markets have tumbled, both nominees have offered facile postures not thoughtful solutions.

While cultural forces feel overwhelming they are not immutable. Unfortunately, most entertainers, journalist, and politicians go with the partisan flow rather than standing against this polarizing tide. But consider Jon Stewart’s impact in 2004 when he confronted Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala on CNN’s “Crossfire.” “Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America,” Stewart demanded, calling Carlson and Begala partisan hacks reducing every political conversation to combat. CNN soon cancelled the show. Alas, we have to reach back four years to find someone standing up so effectively against the toxic partisanship. If more influentials followed Stewart’s example, politics would improve.

A politics that minimizes clashes, seeking the public good, requires a vigorous, romantic faith in America’s democratic experiment. Americans need to restore some of that old time civic religion, that confidence in America’s virtue and in this collective enterprise known as the United States. Structurally, the country also needs some pressures promoting centrism to counterbalance the media and partisan pressures to polarize. Creative leaders and organized citizens groups must tap into that spirit of American nationalism at its best, renewing a sense of collective mission as Americans celebrate their individual freedoms and prerogatives.

George Washington himself taught that the spirit of enlightened moderation, a culture of reasonableness, does not only depend on the Commander in Chief. Citizens in all democracies – including Canada where only 59.1 percent chose to vote this month – must take more responsibility for what we collectively are doing to our politics, our culture, our country, ourselves. The escapist combination of partisanship, cynicism, and frivolity which defines too much contemporary Western culture invites flights from responsibility; the privileges of citizenship, the needs of our time, invite – and demand -- the opposite. We all must begin finding our inner moderate. We must reward muscular moderates who lead from the center. We must repudiate those who through vitriol, demagoguery or mockery divide, polarize, or distract from important issues at hand to attract our entertainment dollars or score some cheap political points.

Citizens in a democracy get the leadership they deserve, for better or worse. If we, collectively, revitalize the center, our presidents and prime-ministers will become center-seekers; if we demand the best of our leaders, we just might get the best leaders. As the new president helps the nation heal, let us hope that he brings out his inner moderate, the promise from the spring of a new politics that defies the usual cultural and political laws of gravity in America.

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Maarja Krusten - 11/4/2008

Just wanted to point out that this is not an article, it is a blog posting. Dr. Troy blogs here on HNN and seemingly did not write this as an HNN front page article. He posted it on his blog last Friday and Rick Shenkman apparently chose to link to that blog posting on the front page on Monday.

I don't blog myself but suspect from what I've seen here on HNN that historians write somewhat differently in blog postings than they do when they craft journal articles. Just guessing, but that may explain why Dr. Troy refers to his sense of the culture rather than pointing to specific studies. In reading his blog posting, I focused on tone -- what linguistics professor Deborah Tannen calls the Argument Culture -- see

I have noticed that writers whose essays or articles are posted here on HNN sometimes stray into hyperbole. Historians *do* notice such tendencies and people *do* comment on it when they perceive it. So there are pitfalls in a casual approach. Earlier this year, I found myself posting under a review of Charlie Wilson's War by Chalmer Johnson (a political scientist) that

"If your purpose is to argue for more accurate and nuanced accounts of history, don’t exaggerate and write in generalities such as 'It makes the U.S. government look like it is populated by a bunch of whoring, drunken sleazebags, so in that sense it's accurate enough.' I burst out laughing when I read that sentence but I don’t think it was there for comic effect. Also avoid sentences such as 'One of the severe side effects of imperialism in its advanced stages seems to be that it rots the brains of the imperialists.' that is far too cartoonish to be effective, at least if you’re writing for historians."

I added, "I’m just not a fan of generalization or packaged black and white characterizations. What if someone outside the academy were to write of a movie dealing with a college campus, “It makes academe look like it is populated by a bunch of [generalizing derogatory characterization], so in that sense it's accurate enough,” would that be an acceptable tone to use? Of course not. That wouldn’t be fair to a diverse community, whose members do not all act and think alike. Well, neither is the exaggeration embodied in the statement Mr. Johnson used in his essay."

So I'll grant that exaggeration for effect does seem to creep into some of what is posted on HNN. But I focused here primarily on the question of tone and the plea for moderation. Dr. Tannen argues that thoughtful debate gets lost in all the shouting and that "our spirits are corroded by living in an atmosphere of unrelenting contention." Dr. Troy may want to elaborate some time on what shapes his views of popular culture. But whether one agrees with the approach he used in this blog posting or not, I for one give him credit for writing about moderation, without resorting to shouting or bullying in his presenttion.

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Lorraine Paul - 11/4/2008

When you 'dumb down' the discourse how can you expect to be able to discuss real and complex situations?

As for the 'centre' when has it ever played a part in US political life? Certainly not in my lifetime. Barack Obama is expected to give whole-hearted support to Israel and he does, therefore, which direction can discourse take regarding the middle-east? I'll give you a clue....Israel is good, Palestinians are bad!

To my mind those who 'discuss and analyse' this thread are merely creating an argument which is the equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin!

The only poster who comes close to reality is Ms Hagbard. Out of seven contributors only one starts to even come close to reasoned discourse.

How bloody pathetic and sad is political discourse in the USA!

Bill McWilliams - 11/3/2008

Mr. Holland: If you preside over a classroom, take comfort from knowing that your students will surely never forget the impact you had on their thinking and (ultimately) on their lives.

Bill McWilliams - 11/3/2008

Thanks, Mr. Holland. Your thoughts should have been the ARTICLE in question, not merely a response to it.

Sometimes it seems that moderate historians are an endangered species.

David Holland - 11/3/2008

There is no evidence to support the claim that "libertinism" and "hedonism" are of problematic proportions in the US. There is however, a good deal of evidence that real wages have declined for working folks while the ratio of CEO-to-worker compensation has skyrocketed. This might point to the greed of a few, but not an immoral popular culture.

We do know that personal debt is at record highs, but it is an unsupported conclusion to call this "hedonism." Maybe in post-industrial America credit has become a necessary but risky survival tool. Perhaps cash-strapped workers are charging their groceries or medical expenses, hoping that the next paycheck will cover it. If so, that is unrealistic, not necessarily hedonistic or libertine. Such a claim should be supported. Where is the evidence?

Likewise, whether American popular culture is now more "materialistic" or "libertine" than at any time is open to debate, it is not a foregone conclusion. Such rhetoric immediately points to Hollywood. However, Madison Avenue and Wall Street both have a large stake in creating a hedonistic, materialistic culture. Whatever the case may be, any such claim to widespread immorality should be supported, not assumed. Where is the evidence?

Credit card companies have lobbied for and won less regulation, lowering the standards of credit worthiness and increasing their profits. ("Frontline," 08 Aug. 2004) Union jobs with a living wage and full benefits have declined dramatically. I would hypothesize that these are the kinds of causative agents that have changed the culture as much or more so than any lapse in morality.

Ignoring these very real factors and positing as fact the assumption that "immorality" best explains our current circumstances biases the discussion in ways that push an agenda, whether one intends to or not. In either instance, without substantiation we can not know. Where is the evidence?

It is discouraging to see hypotheses presented as fact in this forum as though its standards were the same as as those of a radio host or evangelist. One expects the opinions featured here to be substantiated. Presenting assumption as fact is decidedly not the way to some hoped for middle-ground.

Academics should and can do better.

Michael Green - 11/3/2008

I think that Professor Troy makes many effective and thoughtful points here (though I note again the gratuitous comment about Senator Obama parrying "legitimate" criticisms--I would prefer that Professor Troy distinguish between legitimate policy differences and efforts to smear him).

I don't think revitalizing the center necessarily means we shall have courtesy and civility. Both left and right can and should be capable of differing intelligently and respectfully. Perhaps our greatest problem is our greatest accomplishment: the First Amendment. As Judge Jerome Frank said, the Founding Fathers did not write the First Amendment to protect the sale of soap. But a long--indeed, endless--and wide-open campaign leads, unfortunately and perhaps inevitably, to the kinds of personal attacks that characterize campaigning.

Every time someone talks about the decline of political discourse, though, I remind people of the 1828 election--Jackson and J.Q. Adams, the coffin handbills, the allegations that Adams was a pimp, the claims of bigamy. Have we really descended or are our failings more noticeable now in a larger, more diverse country with greater means of mass communication?

Maarja Krusten - 11/3/2008

An interesting essay. Your essay raises for me the question of what behaviors are rewarded by consumers of movies, tv, and blogs, including HNN. For what it is worth, I appreciate the fact that you on the right and Oscar Chamberlain on the left write thoughtful essays and avoid being cyber bullies.

As I did with one of your earlier essays, I thought back on Joel Achenbach’s Washington Post column on “The Culture of Bluster” in which he noted “The moderated opinion, nuanced and open-minded, is a field mouse in a land patrolled by raptors.” (See )

I don’t agree with all of Achenbach’s expressed premises 100%. But certainly in the blogosphere, it seems that an angry, challenging comment is more likely to draw responses from blogging authors or from posters than a moderate one. People have very differing styles of discourse and I wonder sometimes whether the “can’t we all just agree to disagree” types tend to turn away from – or never visit – sites which reward confrontation or name calling. So the samples may be skewed in terms of judging discourse.

Popular culture rarely “does nuance.” You’re not going to see many films coming out of Hollywood that tackle issues such as those in the 2006 film from Germany, _The Lives of Others_. Pondering ethical dilemmas doesn’t fill the seats of movie theaters with the coveted repeat-viewer teen and 20-something demographic.

On TV, too, there are few shows which realistically depict adults working with diverse colleagues or struggling to make their way in the workaday world. Such themes would be too close to real life and many viewers turn to TV for escapism, instead.

On daytime TV serials, the extent to which people yell at each other or call each other out on things amazes me. There’s a much higher level of conflict displayed than I and I would bet most of you have seen in your workplaces. It makes for good drama, perhaps, but hardly for good role models. TV, like movies, is all about the market place. As for nighttime TV, ratings suggest that many viewers reward “reality shows” which depict schemers who try to out maneuver, manipulate or trip up their fellow contestants.

HNN is a fascinating place to study how differently people present their ideas converse with each other. I don’t think that is linked to political persuasion, by the way. People just take differing approaches, that’s all. For example, you see three very different styles of discourse in the comments under this essay by a professor who posted on HNN in February. The author describes himself as a socialist, one poster as a conservative, the other as an independent.;bheaders=1#119371;bheaders=1#119548

Lorraine Paul - 11/2/2008

Well said, Ms Hagbard.

Nancy REYES - 11/2/2008

What is missing from this election cycle is content.
No one is discussing the real issues...even the "hysteria" charges ignore the issues behind the code words that aren't being discussed.

Without discussing ideas, we are going to get a demagogue who promises "change", but no one is sure what this means...

David Holland - 11/2/2008

So long as we have departed solely from history and opened up the matter of what is to come, I must say that these calls for civility appear rather disingenuous due to their subject matter and timing. Although the presidential election is not by any means a foregone conclusion, it appears that the Dem's are going to make substantial gains across the board. So NOW the call for civility is raised? What about those who for years have been asking for civility (civilitas) for our homosexual citizens? Or is the author merely asking that we all act nice toward each other, for simple courtesy, comity (comitas)? In either instance these analyses of our “culture” are wanting.

The 'maverick' McCain could have taken his nomination as an opportunity to break ranks with the extreme elements in his party who routinely oppose such civility as a matter of divine will when they chant, “God hates Fags.” To the contrary, he has actively courted that extreme in ways he refused to do only a short while ago. But back then he lost the nomination. Now the bronco is tamed, the “maverick” branded.

Breaking that horse has left the GOP coalition teetering near the abyss. One would think that a "maverick" might have used this disruption as a means toward real change, to form a new moderate coalition and thereby ensure his own chances at victory. Instead he became fearful and made a deal with the devil. McCain changed himself, not others. That is not leadership, it is pandering. These are not the actions of a “maverick” they are those of a child’s pony kept in a small corral. Now he appears rather foolish as he fumbles about, trying to hold the pieces of the party together. Witness his rather sheepish correction of a supporter, "He's not an Arab, ma'am." And again, after Palin painted Obama a bit too heavily with the “terrorist” brush, McCain had to reassure his audience that Obama was not to be feared and the “maverick” admitted to a respect for him. The monster they created has come home to roost and McCain’s timid efforts to put it back in its cage fail in the face of the otherwise coordinated and ceaseless rabble-rousing.

Election rhetoric frequently goes in directions that challenge both the comity and civility of us all. However, accusing the other of "palling around with terrorists" in the midst of a "war on terror" is inexcusable. It is tantamount to a charge of treason, a point duly noted by some McCain supporters. Furthermore, the RNC and their “culture-makers” routinely use and abuse "Arab" and "Muslim" as if these were an established disparagement. They have repeatedly offered such racist fodder to foment the militaristic, nationalistic, and religious extremes. I am at a loss to find some equally inflammatory rhetoric coming from the Obama camp. (Maybe the Keating Five reference?—a distortion of simple corruption charges that pales in comparison.) In a previous post, Mr. Troy could only fault Obama as "cheesy."

In his latest post, the author faults the culture, shifting the blame for the economic meltdown from our leadership to some nebulous concept. Well, let me add to his comments that Clinton was pushed to the Right by our culture, by the Republican Revolution. Yes, he signed the Financial Services Modernization Act that repealed Glass-Steagal. But, Republicans Gramm, Leach, and Bliley authored the bill that killed it. It was their newfound majority and the Right leaning culture that forged a veto-proof majority that rendered Clinton’s participation symbolic. There were many failures of leadership in government and the private sector, failures to regulate, that colluded with the greedy to create this economic mess. In many instances our leaders pandered instead of acting for the commonweal. But which Party has been pushing the deregulation agenda in recent decades?

In our current circumstances, one can hardly sustain the charge of partisanship against someone who cries out, "enough is enough, I am voting for the opposition." Yes, Franken is not the most qualified person to ever run for the Senate and the Dem's don't seem to mind. And yes, it is therefore hypocritical to similarly dismiss Palin as inexperienced. However, there is a "vote-anybody-but-Republican" attitude afoot. The responsibility for that attitude rests squarely with the failures of "W", his party’s deregulation ideology, and the far-Right “culture-makers.” This is why there are a good number of oh-so-public defections by prominent Republicans precisely over the selection of Palin. In those instances, “partisan myopia” offers no elucidation. Folks are desperate for change, and at the executive level they want intelligent change.

Indeed, compromise needs "mavericks," those willing to break with party extremes to reach across the aisle and establish a civil, middle-ground. However, McCain the moderate, the "maverick" has now been “branded” by the extreme elements in his own party. Previously he positioned himself as the foremost representative of its moderate wing, but he has abandoned those positions. The “culture-makers” of the reactionary Right have become too firmly entrenched in American broadcast media in a way that they weren't only a few years ago. These pseudo-journalists and pharisees who daily channel “the word” directly from “on-high” have become so powerfully enmeshed within the Republican Party that evidently a moderate nominee can no longer run without caving to their pressure. And the pressure grows.” Huckabee” premiered recently, the other night he interviewed a couple of filmmakers intent on "changing the culture" in what they perceive to be a "Christian" direction. McCain’s actions speak loudly: the Right will not tolerate any meeting of the middles.

Enter Obama, a left-of-center-moderate. How have McCain-Palin received him? "Socialist, spreading the wealth around, pal of terrorists." Those are the words of the relatively constrained candidates! The Right’s “culture-makers” have no such reservations. These remarks by McCain-Palin, when constantly parroted and exaggerated in the reactionary rumor-mill, move the middle rightward and further alienate the Left. (Apparently, it is so far Right that some do not think it “myopically partisan” to suggest that all we need do is to come clean about Palin and Franken, and THEN we can move on.) Is there anything in this which indicates that the Right is concerned "for going forward the day after Election Day?" There is a growing extreme faction that doesn’t care for compromise; they need not listen since they have all of the answers. They are zealots.

Religious extremists lack a conception of civility (civilitas) and they want none of it. They seek to establish community (communitas), the kindred community of believers in some orthodoxy. Sure they frequently exude courtesy (comitas), however, orthodoxy establishes means of enforcement that simple courtesy is both helpless before and participates in. One can imagine that even those notorious banes to heterodoxy, Konrad von Marburg and Tomás de Torquemada travelled about courteously expunging the evil ones from the community.

In the US, one can only hope that the many years of courting religious extremists are over. But, I doubt it. Rather, it seems there is a new Republican party in the making, a coalition of only the zealots, nationalists, and militaristic fringe. They are a vocal bunch right now, controlling much of the discourse. And the crowds eat it up, proudly canting in unison, "USA! USA!" and "Drill Baby, Drill!" All at a time when the government blatantly disregards international law, institutionalizes torture, undertakes extraordinary rendition, subverts domestic civil rights, and avoids sincere efforts to join our neighbors in addressing global warming.

These extremists were powerful enough to “geld” the “maverick,” moderate McCain. The true mavericks are David Brooks, Kathleen Parker, David Frum, Colin Powell, and Christopher Buckley. These dissenters face, as Parker described, alienation from friends in the Party. Will they be allowed to return or is this the necessary cleansing before the rise of the new Republican coalition? How much longer before everyone's civility will be replaced by orthodoxy, just as it is now for homosexuals? Thanks to the far-Right “culture-makers” there are many who wish, pray, donate, and vote to complete the orthodox turn in this country. Due to their increasing number and the rightward ideological shift of what constitutes “center,” I’m beginning to wonder if I can continue to refer to them as “extremists.”

After all, can’t most of us find them in our own families, kindly old aunts, retired union worker fathers, and affectionate siblings who turn into rabid beasts at any civil attempt to find a middle ground? For them, compromise is equivalent to opening the floodgates to a godless, un-American, creeping, socialism. Their remedy is “give me that old-time-religion,” an orthodoxy, unity without compromise. It does not matter that they might be themselves the direct beneficiaries of Social Security, Medicare, and Union pension benefits. Ideologically, they believe that the best government is some combination of the smallest and “godliest” government despite the reality of their daily lives. They are the beneficiaries of progressivism who, ironically, now vote against their own progressive interests. Quite a propaganda coup thanks to the reactionary “culture-makers.”

My point is that this matter of civility, for which suddenly there is a great concern, runs much deeper than admitting to the equal faults of both Palin and Franken. It is simplistic to think that all we need do is to offer one another the courtesy of “coming clean” about BOTH of their inadequacies, so that then we might find a path forward in unity. The elderly woman who feared Obama because "he is an Arab" is probably somebody's doting grandmother who wants merely to do the right thing according to her God and for her nation. Although she was obviously misinformed and fearful enough to vote against her own Progressive interests (she is likely a Social Security and Medicare beneficiary), I am sure that she is regularly polite.

Our modern notion of civility (civilitas) is much more than simple courtesy. It is based in notions of accepting differences and of compromising on them, not unity. Simple courtesy (comitas) is not enough to overcome the combination of misinformation, racism, dogmatism, and blind nationalism that currently move people to vote against their own interests in the hopes of establishing the necessary unity to fend off some “evil other”--whether homosexual “sinners” at home or Arab “infidels” abroad. Recent history shows that when these “-isms” are routinely propagated via mass media, something quite different from our modern notion of civility (civilitas) emerges. That “something quite different” is precisely what the reactionary “culture-makers” want. They are currently strong enough to corral the “maverick” and it remains to be seen whether they can finish reining in the RNC.

In the modern world we should all question efforts that seek cultural unity. As adults we must be tolerant of diversity and should be able to easily withstand the occasional discourtesy. The real threat to our culture, to our tolerance of diversity and civility--notions we owe to classical Greece and Rome, via The Renaissance and The Enlightenment—are those who use those means to make the case that we need to return to some orthodoxy. Those who currently seek such a cultural unity cynically use the most precious relics of our classical heritage to paint that heritage out of the picture.

This is the real threat to our culture, to our civility. It is not, as some suggest, simply that we lack comity.

celine hagbard - 11/2/2008

It`s all very well saying our culture is at fault,but without discussing who controls the funding of the media and the politicians,it`s a bit of a moot point surely?