Republican political rhetoric since the election of the half-black, half-white Barack Hussein Obama has undergone a degeneration not seen in over half a century. Then, McCarthyism was the rage, and the John Birch Society was the army of rage. But it did not take long for Senate Republicans to realize the danger of enabling the fringe, of putting democracy itself in harm’s way. So they censored McCarthy, shunned him, and let him get drunker more often, to die of alcohol-related disease.
I am not sure that today’s Congressional Republicans care. I am not sure that their unbridled anger at a black president with a New-Deal-Fair-Deal-New-Society view of America does not, in their minds, justify tearing the temple down. Even if you say only “no” but say it often enough, you say “no” to Democracy and to America as we have known it.
Over the years, researchers have studied intellectual and moral differences between people of different political persuasions. Most such profiles, the greater populist anti-intellectualism on the right than on the left, and the prejudices of better educated people—all lead many people to believe that conservatives or Republicans are not as intelligent or as smart as liberals or Democrats. I do not share such beliefs. I have known far too many intelligent and smart conservatives or Republicans, and far too many unintelligent and stupid liberals or Democrats to think that one side has a greater share of brains than the other. I think that I know what accounts for this stereotyping.
From almost the beginnings of Western recorded thought 2500 years ago, people have carefully distinguished reason from passion. Except for the Romantic Movement of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and its intermittent recrudescences thereafter (the Hippie Movement being one of them), most serious thinkers have favored reason over passion in the conduct of a well and wisely lived life and of a civil and civilized society.
Accordingly, some people try to live a life guided by reason regnant over emotion. In the extreme, they may be characterized by their respect for facts and logic, their openness to new evidence and better arguments, their respect for others and their opinions. They incline to introspection and self-restraint, struggle to understand their motives and purposes, and act on conscience to eliminate personal prejudice.
Other people make no such effort, but live a life guided by reason serving the demands of emotions and thus directing people toward the ends which their emotions determine. In the extreme, they may be generally characterized by their efforts to confirm their convictions; their responses to others on the basis of agreement or disagreement with their views, attitudes, or values; and their likings or dislikings, however acquired or sustained.
Most of us fall somewhere along the spectrum between these extremes. However, the contrast makes a point: the first group reasons; the second group rationalizes, and the difference makes all the difference as we have seen it recently in the prolonged and pointless exchanges between the two political parties. We are, I think, not dealing mainly with the interplay between policy positions and political advantages. We are dealing with radically different mind-sets, between those who reason from problem to solution, and those who know the answer regardless of the question. Everyone can be equally intelligent or smart, or not, thereafter.
Whatever one thinks of Democratic positions on the bail-outs, stimulus package, health insurance reform, and the rest of the agenda, they are like past Democratic (even some Republican) positions. The Democratic view that government can be, and do, good is not novel. Finally, the party seems as fractured and dysfunctional as ever, with unity achieved as a ramshackle arrangement energized by necessity. Republican opposition to Democratic positions and the Democratic view of government is not new either. Even Republican party unity is no surprise, though its unanimity is, and is suspect.
Even the vitriol is new, not in kind, but in degree; so, too, the discourtesy and distance between members of both Congressional chambers. Joe Wilson’s shouted “you lie” addressed to the President during the State of the Union message seems no longer an aberration, but an inauguration of John Boehner’s remark that a Congressman from a neighboring Ohio district “may be a dead man. He can’t go home to the west side of Cincinnati.” Boehner’s disclaimer notwithstanding, being “a dead man” is no metaphor for suffering a political defeat; political defeat means that you can go home to spend more time with one’s family.
What underlies this rhetoric of vitriol and violence is a political hysteria stretching from armed nutwings to some elected federal officials—all conservative, all Republican—all afraid that the modest grant of political power to a black minority in the Sixties is now, given the demographic changes of the recent past, becoming an enormous transfer of political power to a non-white majority. Opposition to that change is summed up in one word: not “never,” but “no.”