05 October 2009

Clive Crook on Political Rage

Clive Crook's column in the FT today is 100% on target. Here is an excerpt:

Increasingly, rage is the dominant mood of US politics – but the feeling is not confined to the far right. Committed partisans on both sides question their opponents’ legitimacy. It is one thing for an adversary to be mistaken, quite another to be a liar or traitor. You do not argue with an opponent like that, or seek an accommodation. You silence him, you shout him down, you impeach.

Right-wing “birthers” question whether Mr Obama was born in the US and can lawfully be president. Their leftwing counterparts think George W. Bush stole the 2000 election, then permitted the attacks of 9/11 to justify his war against Iraq and the creation of a police state. Conservatives deride Mr Obama’s healthcare plan as a plot to turn the US socialist. Liberals, led by former president Jimmy Carter, no less, suggest that much of the opposition to Mr Obama is mere racism.

On substance, there is no discussion. Opponents’ views are not worth examining; bad faith goes without saying. In effect, each side questions the other’s right to participate.

To repeat, this is an attitude of the politically committed, not representative of the country as a whole. Indeed, most Americans’ disgust at the relentless anger and ill will helps to explain their disenchantment with politics.

Crook's analysis applies well to the climate debate:

But one wonders whether even more may be at stake than the capacity to form sound and steady policy. So inflamed are the US political classes that a deeper breakdown begins to be imaginable.

Historically, the US has both accommodated and benefited from a remarkable degree of cultural pluralism – with sufficient civic tolerance, mutual (if sometimes grudging) respect and unashamed patriotism to bind the whole together. Now, more than ever, the instinct of politicians and their energised supporters is to divide. Mr Obama seemed to promise a corrective, but that hope is fading. Old and new media, obsessed with gladiatorial politics, offer no remedy. They either take sides or act as fight promoters; in any event they worsen the polarisation and leave the centre unserved. The internet’s echo chambers stir brainless anger and push the poles still further apart.

In the coming years, the US has enormous challenges to face – not least, like Britain before it, the trauma of relative economic decline. Right now, its polity looks unfit to cope. “A house divided against itself”, said Abraham Lincoln, “cannot stand.”


  1. No it is at best 75% on target, and at worse a good example of false balance.

    Condisder the quotes from Carter:
    “an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity” toward Mr Obama was due to the fact he is African-American.


    “Racism . . . still exists and I think it has bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people, not just in the south but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country,”

    This first is much too strongly stated but the second is right on. Racism is alive and well and it bubbles up more strongly when people feel insecure and threatened. To deny racism is a real and strong force in the US is extremely naive.

    Furthermore equating statements about race with the "birthers" on the right and those who think Bush knowingly permitted 9/11 on the left dismisses it as an issue.

  2. I don't really see a solution to this. Conservatives have dealt with taking this for the last couple of decades, it's not surprising that they decided to start giving it back. The only real surprise is how long it took.

    It's a genie that once it's let out of the bottle it will be impossible to put back in, I think, barring a political realignment.

  3. Nor can a house with unchecked rot in the foundations.

  4. Dr. Pielke,

    Respectfully, I always recoil at the suggestion of moral equivalence between the radical Left and those who lean more towards individual liberties.

    If you really believe in this moral equivalence, please show me the corollary to this series of examples.

  5. "[P]artisans on both sides question their opponents’ legitimacy". They don't debate ideas, but rather silence and shout down. "Opponents’ views are not worth examining...In effect, each side questions the other’s right to participate."

    Yes, yes, and yes! This is exactly what I see happening and it troubles me immensely. It's time to start acting like grownups, like we value the democracy for which so many have sacrificed so much.

    We must support respectful, civilized, wide open debate - where all perspectives get a voice and where ordinary people are permitted to choose from a field of options.