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.”