Is the softening of American culture ruining our politics?
THE House votes on whether to impeach the President, and the nation yawns. According to the polls, the American people are sick unto death of the Lewinsky scandal. They would much rather talk about the important issues.
But the American people are lying. Sure, the scandal turns them off. But they were disengaged from politics long before they had heard of Monica Lewinsky. It was clear in 1997 that public attention was turning from the political to the cultural. The top stories of 1997 were Princess Diana’s death and the trial of Timothy McVeigh; of political stories, only campaign- finance and military scandals made the top ten. When pollsters asked people to rank the political issues they found most important, nothing got more than 25 per cent-generally a sign of an apathetic electorate.
The Promise Keepers marched on Washington, true, but to get media attention, not to ask anything from Congress or the White House. Political pundits found that nobody wanted to listen to them, not even the corporate associations that used to fly them to the hinterlands for amusement. Political magazines saw their circulations decline, and political books went unsold. CNN canceled Capital Gang Sunday for poor ratings. Dr. Laura’s audience numbers briefly eclipsed Rush Limbaugh’s. Limbaugh’s subsequent recovery, along with the boosted ratings and expanded time slots for political talk shows this year, suggests that scandal has increased interest in politics among segments of the population.
Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, likes to describe the forces of political conservatism as a “leave us alone coalition” of parents trying to raise their children without state interference, farmers trying to keep control of their land, gun owners trying to protect their silos, etc. It turns out that the vast majority of Americans have joined the leave-us- alone coalition-with a vengeance. They want conservatives and libertarians to leave them alone, too, not to bother them with talk of privatization and reform.
This anti-political tendency is probably endemic to liberal democracies, especially in times of peace and prosperity. It is encouraged by the politics of consensus and trivia that has characterized President Clinton’s second term. But as Norquist’s formulation suggests, it has also been encouraged by the conservative slogans of the last generation. Plenty of conservatives, indeed, have professed satisfaction at the public’s lack of interest in politics and disdain for politicians-but fewer than did last year. Unhappy is the nation consumed by politics. A nation that affects a pseudo-sophisticated cynicism about politics, however, will find it impossible to hold real miscreants accountable because “they all do it.”
Thus actress Janeane Garofalo on one of Larry King Live’s ludicrous panels: “[Clinton critics are] going on the theory that all other Presidents have been honest and good. And that somehow Bill Clinton’s character is the only questionable character that’s ever been in the White House,” even though it’s impossible to become President “without lying basically the whole way up.” (It is a testament to the weakness of our political culture, by the way, that celebrities are now routinely invited to add spice to it.) Nor does this contemptuous attitude serve the cause of limited government: a people without respect for government will not hesitate to ask it to lower their cable bills and fluff their pillows.
Politics has a bad reputation in part because it involves argument, or “petty bickering.” And that, in turn, fits poorly with a contemporary shift in American sensibilities that is perhaps deeper than any change in morals or views. The new sensibility reacts negatively to strong personalities. (If Douglas MacArthur was too much for Americans to take in the 1950s, he would be positively terrifying today.) It is uncomfortable with sharply defined arguments; it wishes to defer tough choices for as long as possible. It is emotional rather than logical. Michael Barone recently described this political style in National Journal as “sogginess,” as opposed to “crunchiness.” Clinton, all things to all people, is soggy. Republicans, who were willing to shut down the government to force a choice over its direction, have been crunchy. Sogginess won.
It’s still winning. One reason the impeachment debate has hurt Republicans’ image is that they have been perceived as trying to force the public to make a choice it would rather duck. Several polls have found that the public says that law-breakers are not fit for office, that Clinton is a law-breaker, and that Clinton is fit for office. In one focus group, women broke down in tears when asked to resolve this cognitive dissonance. No wonder the public favors the soggy option of censure.
This is a womanly approach to politics, and its prevalence will grow as politicians court “soccer moms.” The spread of sogginess is, in fact, part of the much-remarked feminization of America, as is the shift from public life to private life. A feminizing tendency, too, is probably built into liberal democracy, and within bounds it’s a good thing: it civilizes and tames men. But taken too far, it threatens the masculine stubbornness and intractability that serves as a bulwark for republicanism. Francis Fukuyama, writing in Foreign Affairs, has recently reminded us that women have been less supportive than men of every war America has fought this century, including World War II and the Gulf War. Women also tend to be more averse to risk than men. The shifting politics of guns and tobacco in the Nineties suggests that ours is not a populace jealous of its liberties. And it is no accident that these liberties have traditionally been associated with men, and macho risk-takers at that.
Conservative politicians have tried to adapt to the new mood by professing their “compassion,” but the effectiveness of this tactic has its limits. The antonym of compassion in our increasingly feminized political culture is “mean-spiritedness,” and this is a vice inherent in conservatism. Social conservatism is mean because it judges; and the credo of soggy America is, “Judge not, lest ye be judgmental.” Hence America seems to be getting more socially liberal in theory even as it turns more socially conservative in practice. As usual, economic conservatism cannot sever its fortunes from social conservatism: insisting on formal restraints that keep government from helping people is also mean. And rational politics in general will have rough sledding through a sea of fudge. If judgment is impossible, objective reason must be unable to arrive at public truths. In that case, men in public life cannot offer arguments but only proofs of virtue-of how much they care.
The refrain of Clinton apologists that “it’s time to move on” from the President’s public character to allegedly more important matters like campaign-finance reform or HMO regulation is thus deceptive. Let’s be honest: the public has even less interest in these policy issues than in Clinton’s malfeasance. To ask the public to “move on” under these circumstances is to encourage it to retreat from politics altogether-to shirk the (manly?) duties of public life, which include holding public officials accountable. It is to abandon self-governance itself as just too much trouble. Newsday, however inadvertently, caught the real appeal of “it’s time to move on” perfectly in its editorial on Clinton’s August DNA speech: “He hasn’t been much of a President and he’s even less of a human being, but it’s still not worth the strain of impeaching him.”