Amid all the bitter acrimony and vitriol of politics these days, some historians have risen to try to put our minds at rest.
These reassuring researchers point out that today’s “politics of personal destruction” are not really unprecedented. America has always had partisan and political disputes that push the limits of civility, the scholars soothe, and today’s wars may even pale by comparison with conflicts of centuries long past.
These analyses, while essentially accurate, miss an important point. While today’s political combatants may be no nastier than their predecessors, the impact of conflict on the public may be more profound today.
There are no scientific polls of voters, or even systematic and reliable analyses of mass public opinion, in the 18th or 19th centuries. So we cannot know exactly how ordinary Americans reacted to torchlight parades in which marchers chanted atrocious slanders of their political opponents. But I would speculate that political conflicts were more narrowly experienced in the days before mass media.
Today, we have cameras recording every possible political conflict and then networks of communication to share the news with everyone immediately. For readers, of course, there have always been newspapers recording controversies, but there is something about seeing conflict live that raises the blood pressure faster than reading about it. Some media analysts say we learned this lesson about war during the Vietnam conflict. Wars were always ugly and cruel, but Vietnam was the first war that allowed every American with a television set to discover that truth while eating dinner at home watching the evening news.
The main difference between past centuries and now, I would suspect, is what I’d call the “fear factor.” Americans today are wimps. We expect to be protected from every possible source of pain or even disappointment. We don’t just want financial security; we expect it. We don’t hope to avoid disease or injury; we demand inoculation and safety regulations. Americans even expect to be protected from natural disasters that were once considered “acts of God.” During the upcoming hurricane season, look for some political warriors to blame another political party or faction for failure to prevent killer storms.
In addition to many other newly invented rights, most Americans would add the right to freedom from fear. In another era, this sentiment would have been seen as absurd, but today it’s the way people think. Knowing that, political combatants manipulate mass fears.
Democrats and liberals have raised this to an art form. If President Bush doesn’t allow certain types of stem-cell research, you or your spouse will be forced to suffer the ravages of stem-cell disease. If we don’t get out of Iraq immediately, your son or daughter will be drafted and killed in the conflict there. If Bush is allowed to appoint the wrong judges, then our rights will be taken from us. If you allow Bush to add personal savings accounts to Social Security, the whole system will collapse and we’ll all be destitute in our old age.
In another era, some people doubtless heard these sorts of claims. But not everyone did. And I doubt that many Americans could see or hear anything like the tearful pleas of Christopher Reeve’s wife for stem-cell research.
Television ups the ante by stoking the emotions. And in past centuries, even if Americans were threatened with such graphic and dour consequences of political decisions, I expect that most would have just shrugged and accepted the fact that bad things sometimes happen.
If Winston Churchill was an American leader today and he stated his immortal thesis that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” I wonder what people would make of that. Would they think of him as a thoughtful man or as a dangerous and insensitive extremist who cannot possibly be entrusted with any important decisions? I fear that a fearful America would reject Churchill’s wisdom.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.