A Congressman calls the President of the United States a liar (extra credit for being wrong on the facts). A dispute over health-care politics ends with a brawl, and both parties get first-hand exposure to medical-care issues, because Mr. Pro-reform has bitten off the finger of Mr. Anti-reform. Attendees at public meetings on legislation bring guns and smirk about it. Now an anti-abortion protester has been shot dead.
Is anyone else getting that 1968 feeling? In that year’s Presidential vote, Americans elected the law-and-order candidate, Richard Nixon (a liar, but never called one while addressing a joint session of Congress) in part because many felt the country was falling apart, and needed regrounding.
One difference: Back then, the menace was widely seen as coming from outside society’s institutions — hippie weirdos were supposedly the ones undermining the rules of decency and self-restraint.
This year the loudest voices of disorder came from within the American Establishment. We’ve had governors talking about secession, congressmen heckling the chief executive, a radio celebrity telling his followers he hopes the President fails to turn the suffering country around. And another pundit’s idea of political debate is to brand someone the “worst person” in the world.
Strong emotions are the crack cocaine of politics — we enjoy feeling them, we we enjoy acting on them. In contrast, sitting down with someone to negotiate will never give the same rush as chanting slogans or howling out your hate.
Democratic institutions exist to restrain the power those feelings have in public life. If those institutions, designed to encourage responsibility, are put in the care of irresponsible people, then they start to encourage their own destruction. Politicians go around saying politics is a cesspool; media stars tell you not to believe the media. A vicious cycle results: People trust institutions less, and they trust their own savage emotions more. Each effect promotes the other.
The rules of the game won’t hold when the umpires are yelling “kill the umpire.” And, as the news keeps reminding us, when politics isn’t a game, it’s war.