If I were to write a book on politics in my adult life, this title, "The Theft of Thought", would get real consideration.
Since the 1981 Reagan Revolution, discussion of policy, especially civil consideration of the best course of action, has become increasingly rare.
Bill Bradley was on Bill Maher's show recently - and said something I've felt for a while - namely that the inherent qualities which draw people to the Republican or Democratic party are not irreconciliable, they're not even opposed, but we've made them so.
Bradley postulates the primary ethic of Republicans is self-reliance, or even more clearly, personal responsibility.
He said he feels the primary ethic of Democrats is decency and concern for 'your fellow man.
I think both are correct and fair, and yet, like Bradley, I see that the politically active members of both parties show real contempt for the politically active members of the other party. This didn't use to be so, in fact, in the 60's (or 50's) there was vastly more civil discourse, and work toward effective comprimise, than there has been in the 90's and certainly more than today. Paul Krugman feels this is because during that period, the parties were not far apart on policy, so there was little need for the kind of invective and venom we see today. He's right of course that there was less divergence on policy, and he's also right that the Republicans have shifted FAR right from then, while Democrats, if anything, have become more moderate as compared to the days of the New Deal or the Great Society.
Yet, I don't feel that's the full explanation. Krugman's explanation seems to say, because John became more radical in his political position, John and Jane treat each other contemptuously. I think that the contempt was part and parcel of the radical shift, in fact, I think it caused and was the genesis of the shift, not the other way around.
Political discourse in this country became highly beligerent starting in 1964 with the Goldwater campaign. The rhetoric of Barry Goldwater - which even he felt was over the top later in life - was belicose, was full of the kinds of finger pointing and red-baiting that only McCarthy had really used since the 1930's.
Then, in 1976, and gaining ground in 1980, 1994, 2000 and 2004, a series of political attack apparatus and persons appeared, nearly all of them on the right, whcih instead of talking about policies, talked about 'character', and not in a nice way - started saying things like 'aiding and abbetting' the enemy - when someone dissented - and the chilling effect it had on the press, and on Democrats as well, was palpable. Democrats became defensive and beligerent in response, but now, to very little less degree, than Republican extremists, and it's repulsive.
Does anyone truly think someone like John Kerry (or John McCain) truly would willingly do something to jeapordize the national security interests of the country? If so, why? What inconceivably foolish notion other than animosity could drive such hatred? George Bush didn't blow up the World Trade Center - and Barack Obama isn't going to trade Israel away to terrorists.
However, rational, clear debate is the nemesis of the radicals. Because rational debate debunks the mythology about the opposition they've built up in recruiting followers. Try suggesting sometime to a staunch party loyalist, that a moderate from the other party is preferable to radical from your own and see what you get. Try to discuss, for example, whether our approach in how to secure Iraq was well planned, and you'll either get called a traitor (by the reactionary extremist Republicans) or a warmonger (by rabid anti-war radical Democrats). Even the terms which used to mean the more centrist elements of the parties 'conservative' and 'liberal' have supplanted the terms for the extremists (of radical and reactionary).
No, no longer do we have clear, reasoned debate. Instead it's sound-bites like "he's a celebrity", or "the One", which the right (and now the left) hammer home like some high-school bully, completely uninterested in the actual facts, any debate or discussion. The message apparently is, we want victory, not skillful policy or diplomacy. We are here to blugeon you - to belittle you personally, to create contempt, even hatred for you.
Thoughtful purpose, development of sound fiscal policy, for example, or even just a sound discussion of fair tax policy, that's for only an internal crowd. Thought, it seems is dead, is in fact, even outlawed. It has been stolen away, stolen by zealots who care less about finding a solution that benefits all, except in that they are convinced the ends justifies the means, and thus, anything in the middle is fair game until the end is achieved. It is reminscent of the Soviet communist theory, totalitarianism until the utopian state arises.
The only problem of course, in this Benthamite ethcial world, is that the state never arises, and of course, no one group of people has EVER had the right answer for everyone else - without including everyone else's wisdom in the decision.
So instead it's down with thought, the death of the American experiment soon to follow.