For the first time, I got a very direct glimpse of the effect that politics could have on everyday lives. It was no longer just a funny game I saw on TV, featuring colorful personalities in fancy suits. I also began to have my first informed judgment on a political figure, in this case a Congressional leader by the name of Newt Gingrich, who provided me with my first taste of what it was like to deeply loathe a politician.
I also was beginning to discover the phenomenon of Rush Limbaugh, as well as Christian Coalition figures such as Falwell, Robertson, and Reed. I personally encountered people who insisted with a straight face that the president was a rapist, a murderer, and a drug addict. These people, who included a few of my parents' friends, typically spoke of liberals as if describing a distinct species of insect. Arguing with them was usually an exercise in futility, for they had a barrage of "facts" they had picked up from talk radio, which they listened to far more often than I had time to listen to anything.
These experiences left a powerful impression on me, because I couldn't help noticing that the contemporary American right was apparently run by complete lunatics and charlatans. The maligned liberals, on the other hand, were mostly represented for me by thoughtful milquetoasts like Michael Kinsley. Maybe it wasn't fair that I got such a terrible first impression of conservatives, who I know include many reasonable individuals. I was well aware that the left had its share of clowns, such as Al Sharpton, but they didn't seem to matter a whole lot. There was a notable imbalance in the political spectrum that belied the cliche evenhandedness so many pundits found seductive.
I sometimes got the sense that even the conservative intelligentsia were simply playing the good cop to Limbaugh's bad cop, saying the same stuff in gentler language. A 1995 article I read by William F. Buckley took Clinton to task for his attacks on Limbaugh. Buckley conceded that Limbaugh "induces hatred" and that "if I were a liberal, I would hate him," but he went on to suggest that FDR and Truman did the same sort of thing to the other side. Not a word about Limbaugh's lies or conspiracy theories. This from the 20th century's greatest conservative intellectual.
I made these observations long before I gave any serious thought to budgets, taxes, health care, trade, and so on. While certain causes like environmentalism and gay rights were no-brainers to me from the start, I was initially tempted in a more rightward direction on such issues as abortion, affirmative action, and school vouchers. But the disintegration of any sane right-wing establishment was formative for me, and I would watch the problem grow ever worse as the years passed.
Everything that's happening now looks to me like the logical end result of what was happening in the '90s. A very moderate Democratic president presiding over an economic boom is clobbered by conservatives as some kind of left-wing hippie and nearly hounded from office for sexual lapses of no consequence to anyone but his own family. A Republican enters the White House under highly questionable circumstances and in the course of eight years leaves the country in two hapless wars one of which he started for no good reason, unprecedented debt, and the worst recession since the Great Depression. The disaster of the Bush years is so breathtaking I almost distrust my own judgment on the matter. Maybe I'm falling prey to the same kind of partisan hatred that characterized Clinton's adversaries. But no matter how I look at it, I can't escape the conclusion that Bush truly is one of the worst presidents in history. And it's amazing to watch the conservative establishment today attempt to make us all forget that just a few short years ago they practically worshiped the man.
When it comes to the right, the most visible difference between the 1990s and today is the rise of Fox News. Yes, it did begin in 1996, but it didn't become a force to be reckoned with until the Bush years. The first sign came with the election itself, when a reporter who just happened to be Bush's first cousin called the election for Bush, and all the other news networks--the legitimate ones, that is--followed suit. This set the tone for the Florida post-election fiasco that would follow.
Fox has grown steadily worse. Before, it was a right-leaning network that pretended to be fair and balanced. Now it's just a TV version of talk radio, a calculated, large-scale attempt to brainwash its viewers through the use of misleading propaganda, outright lies, and conspiracy-mongering, nonstop 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week. It is nothing more than the right's Pravda. And it still has an astonishing influence on the mainstream networks, the ones we're supposed to believe are "liberal-biased."
So it was all set when the godfather of this mode of politics, Rush Limbaugh, said he hopes Obama fails, and not a single Republican in power had the strength to distance himself from Limbaugh, not without quickly reversing himself and groveling at Limbaugh's feet for forgiveness. This is what's truly new about the right wing: there is now no separation at all between the propagandists of right-wing media and the Republicans holding public office.
And somehow, the things said against Obama and other Democrats are worse than during the Clinton years. Back then, the attacks were merely nasty. Now, it is absolutely no exaggeration to say that Republican politicians and commentators are stoking insurrection. The tone of conservative hatred today isn't just hysterical, but contains not-very-subtle appeals to violence: talks of Second Amendment remedies, drawing crosshairs on Congressional maps with the slogan "Don't retreat--reload," explicitly defending violent overthrow of the government. The rhetoric is increasingly apocalyptic, and the very name of the opposition movement--"Tea Party"--deliberately alludes to the events leading up to the American Revolution. What's scariest about all this is that the Clinton years gave us Timothy McVeigh; who knows what's coming up now. And something will, make no mistake, because the tea-partiers will invariably be disappointed when the officials they have elected fail to stop Obama's agenda. And they don't strike me as the sorts of people to take disappointment by packing their bags and walking home.
That's why there's a lot more to the current political situation than rooting for teams. I don't mean to suggest that the past was one long Golden Age–I know my parents' generation alone went through Vietnam and Watergate–but I feel in my bones that there's something uniquely disturbing about what's happening now, even under the first president in my life I've had any enthusiasm for.
This post is based on a comment I wrote on Emily Hauser's blog last week. She suggested that I post it to my blog. I expanded on a few sections and edited the wording here and there, but it's more or less the same.
Cross-posted to Daily Kos.