This piece will address the first two questions: how it got started, and what it's cost us so far. Next week, we'll look at some of the ways we can begin to bridge the rift and restore America as a functioning whole.
This is an amazing essay. She really hits it spot on. I anxiously await Part II (I hope it's only a few words -- something like "Take. It. To. The. Streets.")
She makes so many sound points and has the GOP completely figured out:
Us Versus Them is a central theme of the right-wing authoritarian (RWA) worldview -- which is why RWA politicians are the ones who seem to lean most heavily on scapegoating, race-baiting, and warmongering (Us-versus-Them arguments all) in order to gain political power. It's also why RWA voters, whose knee-jerk tribalism helps them deal with their inbred hypervigilance, always fall for it.
The cold historical fact is: They started it. And they did it on purpose. Rick Perlstein, our own tireless chronicler of modern conservative history,* points out that Vice President Spiro Agnew fired the first shot in 1969, when he announced the GOP's intention to put an end to the Era of Good Feeling that had dominated Washington since the war. While party differences were always evident, the previous 25 years had seen strong, even-handed agreement on what the role of government should be, what the common good looked like, and what kind of future the American people expected them to work toward.
That November, Agnew proclaimed the end of that era, in a speech that tore into the country's liberal leadership with a ferocity that stunned the nation. He called the leaders of the anti-war movement (which, by that late date, represented well over two-thirds of the country) "political hustlers" -- "who would tell us that our values are lies." "America cannot afford to write off a whole generation for the decadent thinking of a few," he argued -- a few who "prey upon the good intentions of gullible men everywhere," and who were best characterized as "vultures who sit in trees and watch lions battle, knowing that win, lose, or draw, they will be fed." The real enemy, of course, was liberals -- and the Democratic party, which was guilty of something akin to treason for harboring them.
This was new and shocking rhetoric in its day, and it heralded the beginning of an unapologetic conservative attempt to label half the nation -- including much of the younger generation -- as Bad People with an agenda that all right-thinking Americans were duty-bound to resist. And Agnew reveled in it. "If in challenging, we polarize the American people, I say it is time for a positive polarization....It is time to rip away the rhetoric and divide on authentic lines."
It sounds mild by current standards, but Hubert Humphrey, the previous VP, put the harshness of Agnew's rhetoric in the perspective of its time. "I personally doubt that our country has seen in 20 years" (that is, since Joe McCarthy) "such a calculated appeal to our nastier interests." But, according to Rick's account, White House aide John Ehrlichman stepped forward to defend the GOP's new tone: "I don't think it's illegitimate for someone in his situation to help bring a balance to communications" -- after all, he declared, "politics is the art of polarization."
That was the moment that the conservatives began to pull away from the rest of America, and define themselves as a separate movement with a separate vision of what it meant to be part of this country. Once they'd cut themselves loose, they were no longer bound to play by the agreed-upon rules -- not the customs of comity that had governed GI-era politics, not (as we saw as early as 1972) the laws that ensured fair elections, not even (as we came to realize during the Bush years) the fundamental operating agreement that is our Constitution. They declared themselves a tribe apart, standing in implacable opposition to the future America was rapidly embracing -- a future of environmental responsibility, fair taxation, widening diplomatic influence abroad, and greater domestic investments and social and economic equality here at home. They wanted no part of any of it. And if putting a stop to all that meant declaring themselves a separate nation at war (they openly called it a "culture war"); and if the ravages of that war tore the nation to pieces, well, then, so be it.
Agnew's declaration was only the beginning. In October 1971, Pat Buchanan wrote a strategy paper that turned Agnew's "positive polarization" into a long-term Republican goal. "Cut the Democratic Party in half," he argued, and the GOP would end up with "far the bigger half." The biggest part of that half would be gained by pandering to the racism of the Dixicrats, in the gambit that Kevin Phillips famously named the Southern Strategy.
The GOP and their brethren movement conservatives have been playing divide-and-conquer with America ever since, constantly seeking out new ways to slice-and-dice the electorate by stimulating old animosities and churning up new ones. The demons have been many and varied, depending on the time and place: feminists, gays, communists, pagans, college professors, scientists, Mexicans, liberals, and most recently, Muslims. Like authoritarian ideologues everywhere, the GOP has found that it can do without a God; but it can no longer survive -- let alone justify its long war -- without a devil.
What It's Cost Us?
The right wing has kept this rollicking game of Us Versus Them going for nearly 40 years now, and we've reached the point where almost every problem we're facing as a nation can be traced back to the fact that a large political subgroup has effectively seceded from the same union the rest of us still belong to. Here are just a few areas in which the divisions they've fostered have cost us dearly, and will continue to cost us for a long time to come.............