America has the meanest of politics today, and by that I don’t mean small.
America also has the most impoverished of politics today, and by that I do mean small.
It’s hard to imagine us practicing a political discourse more trivial than the one we do today. It’s difficult to imagine a politics less suited to addressing the grave problems facing the country in our time. It’s hard to see how our policy-making machinery could be very much more broken than it is, short of the Weimar Republic anyhow (and, some days, it doesn’t seem so short of that at all).
It’s in this context, especially, that I will miss Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who announced his retirement from the Court this week. Stevens is not just an old-timer, and one of the longest-serving justices on the Court in all of American history, but he is literally and figuratively an anachronism – an alien from another time. And, in many ways, it was a substantially better time.
To get a sense of how much that is so, it’s worth noting that we are talking about a guy who is, or was at least, probably a Republican. We know for sure that he was appointed by the Republican president, Gerry Ford. Talk about a long time ago. Stevens is such a dinosaur, he comes from the era when Republicans weren’t all Neanderthals. And I don’t refer just to their abysmal politics, either, nor even to the fundamental deceitfulness at the core of those politics. What distinguishes the post-Ford Party of Reagan more than that is their meanness, their smallness, and their sheer destructiveness.
But I often worry that the scariest effect of our times – especially for people who have the mixed fortune of being younger than I am – is not so much that we have already, or might soon, lose entirely a level of decency in our politics, but far worse still, that we will lose the capacity to imagine decency. Such concerns always bring me back to the beautifully rendered nightmare of Orwell’s 1984, where the greatest achievement of the regime was just that – its success in stripping the citizenry of the ability to even verbalize alternative visions.
I wonder about that today. For anyone who is, say, forty years old or younger in America – quite a large proportion of the population – do they even understand that politics doesn’t have to practiced in the way it has been since Reagan turned the GOP into a party of thugs, and Clinton led the Democrats into their role as thug-enablers? Do they know that it actually was once different, not so long ago? Can an alternative praxis, which is not even theoretical but quite real in recent history, still be envisioned?
For if it cannot, then the likelihood of a movement to restore it is radically diminished. One needs a vision before undertaking a long march. And if we can no longer envision a better politics, then surely this is the greatest and most insidious victory of the regressive revolution these last three decades. It’s one thing to wreck the ship of state and loot the passengers. It’s quite a greater and more permanent feat to strip them also of the capacity to realize that it doesn’t have to be that way.
American politics were not perfect before this revolution, let’s be clear. Both Nixon and McCarthy, for example, pre-date this wider disaster. And Democrats like Lyndon Johnson or the excruciatingly well-named Hubert Humphrey could simultaneously launch wars of the greatest ferocity – and do so for their own career purposes, knowing that the war could not be won – even while midwifing great national progressive strides in health care and civil rights. There were, to be sure, some very ugly moments in modern American history before the Wrecking Crew of the Right instantiated ugliness as standard operating procedure in the US of A.
But there were differences of substantial import then, too. The politics of the far right, to begin with, were the politics of the far right. Today they have simply been mainstreamed. Reagan, fortunately, has become a historical ghost for young people, not much different than Andrew Jackson in terms of meaningfulness to their lives. Before that he was a moderately successful or failed president, depending on how you define success. What very few remember is that just before that he was little more than a punch line. Throughout most of the 1970s, people used to laugh out loud about the idea of someone that ideologically nutty being president.
Moreover, even when there were excesses like Nixon or McCarthy, the bulk of the Republican Party could usually be counted on – albeit far later than it should have – to police itself. It was Barry Goldwater, after all, who rode up Pennsylvania Avenue with a delegation of Republicans to inform Tricky Dick that he was finished. It was the Eisenhower wing of the Party that ultimately turned on McCarthy.
Ike did more than that. He alsp wrote a letter to his brother Ed in 1954, in which he talked about the lunatics of the far right who wanted to undo the New Deal, now that the GOP had finally come to power after twenty years in the well-deserved wilderness. These folks were absolutely no different than the tea party freaks and scary monsters who today not only dominate the GOP, but own it entirely. What Eisenhower (not exactly a long-haired, dope-smoking, Trotskyite anti-capitalist revolutionary) said about them not only reveals the lunacy of their politics in completely unvarnished terms, but shows how fringe they were within the GOP, until the Reagan era:
“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
Could we imagine George W. Bush or Dick Cheney or Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin uttering those words? Of course not. Why would they call themselves stupid?
Losing John Paul Stevens reminds us just how far down the road to suicidal self-destruction we’ve now come. He is the last of his generation. It’s not that Stevens was always a voice for liberal politics, or always showed progressive wisdom in his court decisions. He didn’t, especially in his earlier years on the bench. But what he represented, especially of late, was an integrity and a selflessness that has all but entirely disappeared from American politics in our time.
If you doubt this proposition, then ask yourself this question: When was the last time you saw an act of genuine political courage in America? When was the last time you saw someone do the right thing because it was the right thing to do? When was the last time somebody sacrificed a job, or a few bucks, or their status among the freeze-dried, blow-hard, pontificator set of Washington’s chattering class? Let alone something more. When was the last time you observed someone risk their lives, or perhaps decades in jail, for a principle?
Not only does it not happen anymore, but the very ethos of personal sacrifice is itself sadly tattered and shattered in our time. Members of the American military sometimes take remarkable risks and make supreme sacrifices, but I don’t think they often do it in the name of abstract principles. In fact I think they – the brass especially – far too often trample such principles in pursuit of other goals. As David Halberstam noted in his histories of the Korean and Vietnam wars, men who could be quite brave in battle often became bureaucratic cowards of frightening proportions, protecting their careers as they later rose up the ranks of the Pentagon establishment. And this, of course, at the immense cost of grief and even lives for those unlucky enough to have served under them.
Bobby Kennedy made essentially the same point, more broadly: “Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital, quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.”
The heroes willing to make sacrifices of this sort come from another era. Daniel Ellsberg risked all to share with us the military’s own secret truth about Vietnam. Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus gave up their cabinet positions rather than protect the crimes of Richard Nixon by firing Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Cyrus Vance resigned on principle as Carter’s Secretary of State. In the Clinton era, two lower ranking officials quit in protest of his draconian welfare legislation.
Today, a few Bush administration officials have pointed to the crimes of that regime, but always too meekly and always too late to matter much. I admire Richard Clarke and his patriotic candor. He tried to alert the country to the nature of the president in time to prevent a second term, but not in time to avert the illegal and murderous invasion of Iraq, based on lies to which Clarke was privy. And Colin Powell, whose reputation was always wildly inflated, anyhow, allowed his stature and legacy to be reduced dramatically rather than refusing to become a tool of the Bush/Cheney train wreck. He was probably the only American who could have single-handedly stopped the march to war in 2003 if he had but spoken up. Alas, he did not, and perhaps a million people are dead now as a consequence.
These are, as Bobby Kennedy notes, hard things to do. But it always struck me that – unless one is a sociopath – the opposite would so much harder. I can’t begin to imagine how I’d face myself in the mirror for the rest of my life if had traded an ocean of blood for… what? A career advancement? Can it really be that such a sentiment is rare in twenty-first century America?
Perhaps. It would seem to be the way of our time. But maybe the above caveat explains it all to well. Maybe it’s just that far too many of the men and women drawn to ‘public service’ today are in fact deeply sociopathic. I don’t think that’s such a stretch. We live in an era that prizes celebrity and personal enrichment like never before. Those who embrace the worship of self today are rewarded with the valued goodies of our society, and are, I think, all too often drawn to political office, and all too often for the wrong reasons.
By no means is this limited to its worst practitioners on the right. One thinks of the astonishing narcissism of John Edwards, which – worse yet – he masked behind a supposed concern for the poor as the rationale for his presidential bid. Or the moral stench of Bill Clinton flying to Arkansas during the 1992 campaign to establish his tough-on-crime bona fides by supervising the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a man so mentally deficient that he asked to save the desert from his last meal to eat at a later date.
Measured against the Bushes and Cheneys and Powells and Clintons of our time, Justice John Paul Stevens seems just the anachronism he truly is. In the strongly-worded dissents he filed in cases such as Bush v. Gore or Citizens United, one sensed the agony of a real patriot, powerless to hold the line against the destruction of principles and country that he loves, but unwilling to stand by and watch in silence.
Maybe there are other people like that today, but I don’t see them. In any case, they don’t go by the name of Obama or Biden or Pelosi or Reid, that’s for sure. Quite the opposite is the case nowadays. The reckless and destructive rhetoric of the Palins and Becks and Limbaughs of our time has all the political wind of this moment in its sails. Remarkably, this is so even after a solid decade (if not three) in which the corrosive effect of the politics they champion has been on full display for all to see.
But we don’t, by and large. See, that is. And that is true, in part, because there are so few John Paul Stevens out there manning the ramparts of such crucial but fragile basic constructs as decency, integrity and honesty. These qualities are entirely requisite to the practices of liberty, democracy and equality, themselves the product of thousands of years of painful development in history.
No, there are – sadly – so few John Paul Stevens out there.
And now there will be one less.
DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.