Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Sound and Fury of Politics

I have written several times here about the strangely apocalyptic political rhetoric used by many Americans, the sort of people who greeted Obama's re-election by saying "A thousand years of darkness begins."  I find these rants laughable; what, really, is so radical or dangerous about Barack Obama? Shifting to a broader frame: what, really, are the differences between America's parties? How to spend a 5 percent cut in Medicare spending? Whether to set the top tax rate at 35% or 38.6%? Does all the rhetoric about a godly nation of rugged individualists vs. a diverse society where people look out for each other really amount to very much in the end?

I was just thinking about this because I was reading a review article by Keith Thomas about the English Civil War and the rule of Oliver Cromwell. After noting that for generations English people argued passionately about what the Civil War meant and whether Cavaliers or Roundheads were in the right,
Today that passion has largely disappeared. In British secondary schools Hitler and Stalin have long replaced Charles I and Cromwell as the most popular subjects of study, and in the universities the seventeenth century no longer attracts the best young historical talents. The diminishing band who continue to write about the period have largely discarded the grand narratives of liberty and revolution. They no longer believe that two sides in the war were divided by great differences, whether social or ideological. Clear-cut interpretations of the conflict have given way to a complex and confusing story of contingency, accident, and unintended consequences.
Well. What is one to make of the assertion that Charles I and the men who cut off his head were not "divided by great differences"?

It is true that modern scholarship has eroded many generalizations once made about the two sides. They were not drawn from different social classes, the religious differences are hard to pin down, and men on both sides had a variety of views about the proper powers of king and Parliament. And yet, one faction set themselves against the sort of government England had known for a thousand years, denounced as so much devilry all of the theological and philosophical arguments built up during that millennium to justify kingship, and cut off their sovereign's head. They certainly thought they were participating in an event of very great importance. Some of them were heard to remark that the establishment of the Godly commonwealth was the most important event since the resurrection of Christ. Others were, as is often said, "reluctant revolutionaries," but faced with a king who would not bow to their wishes they eventually agreed to cut of his head rather than submit to his demands.

How much does politics matter? In some of my moods I dismiss our electioneering as irrelevant to what makes up a fulfilling life, and I marvel at people who think that some political change will make them happy. I have a sense that the extreme politics of the early twentieth century, fascism and communism and so on, were an almost desperate attempt to make political action matter in a profound way. For those who really want to change the world, the average debate in the average parliament is a trivial bit of basket weaving.

Yet I know that in another sense this is radically short-sighted. The world I live in is very much a political creation, from the public schools my children attend to my right to blaspheme. If any one election has little impact, that is because the great mass of opinion has shifted together, binding the hands of even those politicians who would like to undertake radical reforms. Taken together, the political reforms of the past 200 years have had a gigantic impact on our lives.

Even changes that strike the big picture historian as trivial can matter a lot for some people. Consider the draconian "Three Strikes" law approved by California voters in 1994, after a parolee abducted and murdered Polly Klaas, and undone by them last week. This law lasted but 18 years and was not consistently applied, but it still sent thousands of petty criminals to prison for life. If a thousand men spend a decade in prison, does that count as a significant event?

Florida's butterfly ballots and hanging chads may not have made a huge difference in the US, they certainly had an enormous impact in Iraq, where 100,000 civilians were killed in Bush's quixotic attempt to create a shining model of Arab democracy.

If, as I often think, the stakes in our elections are small compared to the rhetoric, that is actually a triumph for our system. In other circumstances, political differences that seem less than great to historians can lead to civil war. The rhetoric of the 1640s was exaggerated and overheated in the same way that ours is, and perhaps the divide between the two sides was no greater. Yet with no system in place to moderate the conflict, and no options but to submit to the king or kill him, that divide proved fatal for thousands. The paranoia and rage spewing from well-fed Americans with no problems to speak of reminds us that extreme thinking has a deep and eternal appeal. This is why those who care about preserving our civilization should look for common ground rather than exaggerating our differences, prefer compromise to victory, and remind ourselves often that we are all in this together.


Unknown said...

One of the most depressing aspects of British historiography is that the standard British model of doing history seems to be to take some exciting event and make it seem as boring as possible, and call that "new scholarship." This has been true in many fields for a while now (remember A. J. P. Taylor's argument that Hitler was really just a normal German leader, pursuing German aims of long and more or less respectable standing). After all, what new thing can one say about Cromwell if not, "he was even more boring than the last guy who wrote about him said he was"?

One thing one might say is many political convulsions seem to be preceded by years of low-level grousing by polarized hysterics, years during which the traditional system can keep hold by compromise. But sometimes the divisions come to seem ever more stark and urgent, and eventually they can't just be compromised away. Typical is the way National Socialism looked back upon decades of extremist complaining and propagandizing, which c. 1885, say, may have seemed pretty silly and irrelevant.

That said, the current brand of right-wing American grousing is going to have to find a way to attract younger people, or it's going to die of old age.

Unknown said...

Since I'm in a mood to gas on, I'll add that it has seemed to me that there is an Anglo-American tradition of seeing rather minor (as they may seem later) infringements of liberty in stark, apocalyptic, and even hysterical terms. Neither Ship Money nor the Stamp Act are really the worst things that have ever occurred. This tendency to overreaction is, IMHO, overall probably a good thing that has helped keep us free. But there's a part of me that recognizes that, in the long history of tyranny, Nixon's Plumbers (for example) were pretty small beer.

leif said...

you ask, i gather rhetorically, if violent criminals spending time in prison is of importance. my friends know i don't blush from out-talking a rhetorical question... one can certainly point out that incarceration comes at a surprisingly high cost, is meted out highly unevenly and often for petty crimes. however, if even 10% of these inmates would kill someone (or would kill again), that amounts to many lives forever altered by their misuse of their freedom and abuse of the public trust.

incarceration is essentially weighing public support for safety against the risk of recurrence of behavior that society deems destructive to stability.

leif said...

@david, the propensity to exaggerate is interestingly covered by gerry mander in 1980, which expands on desmond morris's 1969 chapter on 'the stimulus struggle' in the human zoo. bruce schneier dusted this off when discussing his five human tendencies in exaggerating risks.

they're all correct. you are too. just adding some context.

John said...

Ship Money, Stamp Act, Medicare, Obamacare -- Yes, hysterical reactions to very minor infringements on liberty. David, if you approve "overall" of opposition to Ship Money and the Stamp Act, what do you think of opposition to the individual mandate?

John said...

The relationship between angry rhetoric and revolutionary action is indeed what I am wondering about. Karl Kraus wrote that from the chatter in Viennese cafes and the tone of newspaper editorials, he knew the German world was heading for a terrible crisis, which turned out to be Nazism. I have never believed this, because I have lived through decades of angry rhetoric and unhinged editorials that have led to nothing. But was Kraus right? Did the grumbling he heard really show that Germany was ripe for apocalypse? or was it the bad break of the 1932 election falling at the nadir of Depression that brought Hitler to power? What sort of bad break might turn grumbling into revolution in our society?

Unknown said...

Well, I said "overall" because I was reserving the right to disagree with strong reactions in specific cases, not because I esteemed the resistance to Ship Money or the Stamp Act. I actually think I probably would have opposed the resistance to the Stamp Act (not something I say proudly, but I'm trying to imagine how I would have thought about things in 1765, without knowing the future).

On the merits, I think those protesting the individual mandate have a point. But, since there's no way single payer is going to happen here anytime soon, I'm willing to go with it.

On the issue of Germany ripe for apocalypse c. 1932, my understanding is there was a broad feeling among all sectors of society and all shades of political opinion, including those in the government itself, that the Weimar Rep. was not a legitimate government. On this point, Communists, Nazis, the army, big business, and many others were all agreed. I don't actually get that sense from the US today; it seems to me there's a broad acceptance of the constitution's basic legitimacy in this country. Ten, twenty years from now things may be different. But it's not true now.

Perhaps a good parallel for the US today would be the US in about 1969. Many people, and not just the ones taking LSD, thought the US was heading for revolution or civil war. And there really was a crisis of legitimacy and unity in the country, much worse than today. But it passed.