by Robert Dallek
TODAY Aug 03, 2011
There is much that is admirable about America's politics: The growing opportunity for anyone, regardless of religion, race or gender, to run for any and all offices; and the long history of peaceful transitions set in place when Thomas Jefferson announced in his first Inaugural: "Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."
Jefferson also counselled tolerance for those who saw Republican government as an error: "Let them stand," he said, "undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it".
So it is with the many bizarre voices we have heard through the decades of American political history.
The country's Right of centre has been a rich vein of distorted thinking. From the Know Nothings in the 1840s and 1850s, who declared Catholic migrants to the United States agents of the Papacy intent on destroying American freedoms; to the John Birchers of the Cold War years who saw Communists in every walk of American life subverting traditional freedoms; to the present-day Birthers decrying a President who they see as foreign born and an illegitimate holder of the office - American politics has never been free of apocalyptic voices predicting the country's demise at the hands of sinister forces.
The Left has had its share of crazies as well. Late 19th-century populists saw bankers and industrialists manipulating markets to enrich themselves at the expense of small farmers and labourers, and favoured political candidates promising economic relief through free and unlimited coinage of silver. Pitchfork Ben Tillman from South Carolina campaigned for office in coveralls wielding his pitchfork, promising to stick it into President Grover Cleveland's fat ribs after angry voters sent him to the Senate.
At least when these firebrands of the Right and the Left preached their venom, they had some basis for their anger: Economic downturns in the 1870s and 1890s fuelled the explosion of animus among suffering citizens, and the Sino-Soviet Communist threat of the post-1945 years gave a degree of credibility to Joseph McCarthy and other anti-communist tub thumpers.
But now? What possible sense can we make of the Sarah Palins and Michelle Bachmans and Donald Trumps who, in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, have made such a fuss over US President Barack Obama's birth certificate, over gay marriage and over death panels?
And in more recent days, the Tea Partiers, who are determined to shrink the size of government by refusing to raise the government's debt ceiling despite warnings of economic catastrophe with worldwide repercussions? Their goal, whatever their rhetoric about making Washington live within its means, is to repeal the past 100 years of federal programmes that have done so much to humanise the American industrial system. Their actions are driven by indecipherable anger, not rational calculation. Do they even understand what the dismantling of so many government programmes might mean?
Something is at work here that makes you wonder if rational discourse is beyond the capacity of many American voters to understand and to think essential in public discourse. Several things seem to be driving the present affinity for this "silliness", as President Obama has described it.
First, there is the growth of all the media outlets that provide abundant opportunities to all sorts of zany characters to speak their minds and reach an audience. Nowadays, everyone seems to have a blog that finds readers. The number of people across the country with peculiar ideas and unfathomable things to say has not increased, but their ability to make themselves heard certainly has.
But why are so many ready to hear them and take them so seriously? One answer is that the country's politics are adrift because traditional party loyalties have declined so substantially. The rise of the Tea Party movement is a striking example. As the current crisis demonstrates, to House Speaker John Boehner's chagrin, these newcomers refuse to follow their party's lead and agree to anything that includes a hint of compromise with their goal of redefining government spending and its powers.
The Democrats are not much more unified. Many of what the media describe as the party's base are restless with President Obama's compromises and a few are threatening to challenge his re-nomination next year. There have always been mutterings on the Left and the Right against the established parties, but they now seem more like an atomising force.
DEEPLY CYNICAL PUBLIC
There is also the fact that most Americans no longer see themselves as Democrats or Republicans, but, if they remain interested in politics at all, as independents - whatever that may mean. There are few recognisable political leaders to whom voters seem to listen.
The public is deeply cynical about politics and politicians. The Congress holds only a 17-per-cent approval rating and the President now has the approval of less than 50 per cent of the public. Moreover, the latest polls show little enthusiasm for any of the potential Republican challengers. Neither Mr Mitt Romney nor Mr Tim Pawlenty nor Mr Newt Gingrich nor Ms Michelle Bachman nor any of the lesser-known names in the mix generate much excitement.
Will this sort of political malaise continue? It is impossible to predict. But it seems likely unless someone who generates widespread enthusiasm for themselves and their policies comes along. President Obama seemed to be filling this void in 2008 when so many new voters came to the polls in response to his campaign. But that enthusiasm has waned.
It is fair to say that the President has been dealt difficult cards. But Americans are less inclined to blame circumstances for a president's loss of popularity than to see his shortcomings in meeting the challenges facing the country. Perhaps nothing tells us more about the current state of American politics than polls showing the enduring popularity of John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
In an opinion survey last November, Kennedy received an 85 per cent approval rating and Reagan followed him with 74 per cent. None of the other recent presidents included in the poll came close to either of them.
It speaks volumes that a president who served for only 1,000 days 50 years ago and had so limited a record of achievement should hold the affection of so many. True, he was assassinated and Americans can only imagine what another five-plus years of his presidency might have brought. But it is the yearning for Camelot that tells us how much is currently missing in our politics and how eager Americans are for someone who can regenerate national optimism and unity.
In the meantime, some hobbits from Middle Earth, as Senator John McCain recently described the extreme Right in his Republican Party, seem to be filling the vacuum.
Robert Dallek is one of America's leading presidential historians; his latest book is The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953.