My view of American Politics, part 1: “Incivility, polarization and charisma”

For Christmas this past year I received an amusing little book called Slinging Mud by Rosemarie Ostler that documents the history of political name-calling historical in U.S. Presidential elections. It begins with the 1824 campaigns of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson and runs through the 2008 election.

One example Ostler cites that I particularly like is from the 1896 election, when a New York Times editorial asked “Is [Democratic candidate William Jennings] Bryan Crazy?” In it, a psychiatrist claimed that Bryan’s speeches were evidence that he was insane. And, as Ostler notes, something similar would be done almost 70 years later to Barry Goldwater. There are other interesting stories in it too, all of which go to show that politics in this country have never been all that civil.

And yet, it still seems like things are different now. It’s hard to put one’s finger on exactly how, but most people feel like discourse is not as civil as it once was. Is this just misplaced nostalgia, or is there something more to it?

I think there’s a bit of a problem just now in that the period from the 1940s to the mid-1960s was, relatively speaking, an unusually mild period in politics. Part of it was the unity developed in World War II, and the optimism of emerging from the war and the Depression as one of the big superpowers. As this article by Heather Whipps puts it: “There was constant debate over policy between the two parties throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but always with an underlay of camaraderie, historians say.” However, I suspect that the reason for civility in the ’40s and ’50s  may have been simply that the parties were much closer together ideologically then.

The 1950s, in particular, were a rather boring time in politics. Maybe it was because Eisenhower was President for most of the decade, and nobody wanted to insult a war hero.  The only really interesting thing to do in politics then was hunt communists, but so many people in both parties got in on that act that it definitely deserves the stamp of “working together in the spirit of bipartisanship”. Matthew Yglesias once wrote that the partisanship of today is far preferable to the bipartisanship of the ’50s.

I once noted that the 1950s serve as an excellent political Rorschach test. Cosmopolitan liberals tend to laugh at the period as one of artificiality and ridiculous propaganda, whereas Nationalist conservatives tend to romanticize the decade as a time of wholesome family values and decency. And, as it happens, our politics at the time do suggest that the country was more united then… at least, among those whose voices could be heard.

Of course, it all changed in the 1960s, with the Civil Rights Act, the sexual revolution, the counter-culture, the opposition to the Vietnam War, the “New Left” and so on. Politics got more polarized, less civil and much more exciting. And, as documented in the work of Rick Perlstein, among others, this state of affairs has persisted to the present day.

The alert reader may have thought of something curious about this. Specifically, why are the Republicans, who like the 1950s, the ones most associated with extremism and incivility, and the Democrats–excluding Yglesias–who mock the period the ones most eager for “consensus” and “bipartisanship”? Strange. This seems to demand further investigation.

But since Yglesias is one of the few exceptions, let’s examine his analysis a little more closely before we delve deeper. He cites a study that reports that

[I]n 1952 and then again in 1960 according to the National Election Survey just 50 percent of the public felt it could discern “any important differences in what the Republicans and Democrats stand for?” [sic] In 1966 that fell to forty percent. In 1992 by contrast, it went up to 60 percent and it was all the way up at 76 percent in 2004.

Striking a populist note, Yglesias says this change is a good thing:

A world in which the electorate is left perpetually baffled by the decisions they face and then the important issues are settled through arcane committee negotiations rather than on election day is just a means of empowering elites, not a path to better governance.

Well, this is true. Just because the people in power gets along doesn’t mean they’ll do good work–in fact, if they’re all good friends, I suppose they’re less likely to pressure each other to solve problems.

I like that Yglesias calls it “arcane committee negotiations”. How dull that sounds! But there’s an even better term for it: “rational-legal authority“. Yes, once again, it’s Max Weber’s world and we’re all just living in it. Rational-legal authority is by far the least interesting kind of authority. The hallmark of this kind of authority is “bureaucracy”, and nobody likes bureaucracies.

Of course, Weber also sees this as the most advanced form of authority, and he believed, according to Wikipedia, “that societies evolve from having mostly traditional and charismatic authorities to mostly rational and legal ones”. “Charismatic authorities” are much more interesting, though, than rational-legal ones. To quote Wiki again: “Charismatic authority almost always evolves in the context of boundaries set by traditional or rational (legal) authority, but by its nature tends to challenge this authority and is thus often seen as revolutionary.”

Keep that in mind, and then recall that television became more influential towards the end of this period. I hate quoting myself, but it’s fastest in this case:

[M]ass communication makes it much easier to “transmit” the charisma, and so, in the developed world at least, military coups have been replaced with charismatic leaders who sell themselves as appealing individuals to the populace at large… In some ways, then, it is not humans who have changed but rather our technology that has facilitated the charismatic domination by these individuals…

This is, I feel, a dangerous situation. The blind loyalty felt by the devotees to their political messiahs is something which fundamentally alters the nature of the political conflict. And it is this, I believe, which drives the oft-bemoaned lack of “civility” and “moderation” in today’s discourse. Cults are not rational, but emotional.

I say it again and again: television and especially the internet multiply the power of charisma. But what does that have to do with polarization? Well, being interested in politics by a charismatic person involves much more passion than does a “rational-legal” system. Consequently, when charisma is in play, everything is much more emotionally charged.

So, should televisions and computers come with warning labels that say “this machine kills centrists“? People blame cable news and the internet for the rise in polarization and incivility and they’re totally justified. But I don’t believe it’s because these things intrinsically make people angrier; I think it’s because they have allowed charismatic authority to have way more power than it used to. Which is saying something, because it has been a force for thousands of years.

But hold a minute: there’s still something missing, I think. Even if my idea is completely true, why should that have changed what the parties themselves believed. Charismatic people usually embody a cause–they don’t go off and create their own causes. In other words, was it just the new-found power of charisma that caused the parties to change, or was another factor involved?

To be continued… in the meantime, here’s some interesting reading:

What's your stake in this, cowboy?