I have been trying hard to recall a presidential campaign in which there has been so much slime, sleaze and slippery deception confronting the voter. I can’t. Even Nixon, by the time he was a presidential candidate, had cleaned up his act. McCain and Palin seem to be establishing new subterranean standards for such campaigns.
But while thinking about it, two non-campaign analogies came to mind, one dismal, the other hopeful.
The first is Germany just before the rise of Hitler. Germany’s willingness to accept Hitler was the product of many cultural characteristics specific to that country, to the anger and frustrations in the wake of the World War I defeat, to extraordinary inflation and particular dumb reactions to it, and, of course, to the appeal of anti-Semitism. Still, bearing in mind all the foregoing, there was also:
– A collapse of conventional liberal and conservative politics that bears uncomfortable similarities to what we are now experiencing.
– The gross mismanagement of the economy and of such key worker concerns as wages, inflation, pensions, layoffs and rising property taxes. Many of the actions were taken in the name of efficiency, an improved economy and the “rationalization of production.” There were also bankruptcies, negative trade balance, major decline in national production, large national debt rise compensated for by foreign investment.
– The collapse of the country’s self image. Historian Thomas Childers points out that Germany had had been a world leader in education, industry, science and literacy. Much of the madness that we see today stems from attempts to compensate for our battered self-image.
– Finally, consider Article 48 of the constitution of the Weimar Republic, which stated, “In case public safety is seriously threatened or disturbed, the Reich President may take the measures necessary to reestablish law and order, if necessary using armed force. In the pursuit of this aim, he may suspend the civil rights described in articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153, partially or entirely. The Reich President must inform theReichstag immediately about all measures undertaken . . . The measures must be suspended immediately if the Reichstag so demands.” It was this article that Hitler used to peacefully establish his dictatorship. And why was it so peaceful and easy? Because, according toChilders, the ‘democratic” Weimar Republic had already used it 57 times prior to Hitler’s ascendancy. Echoes of the Patriot Act and “homeland security.”
Into this situation came the Nazi Party which rose from 3% of the vote to being the majority party in four years. Central to its politics were campaigns that lashed out at opponents without revealing its own agenda. Infct , the use of negative campaigning is actually a contribution to modern politics by Joseph Goebbels. It turned voters paranoiac, arguments vicious and reality irrelevant.
The danger today lies not in what McCain and Palin might do themselves. Despite their anti-democratic instincts, they are too incompetent to do much other than fail. But it is in that failure that the danger would lie. Imagine the economy truly sinking into a depression that the McCain administration badly bungles, leaving a situation that, to an increasing number, can only be resolved by decisive action, accompanied by the appearance of a general or otherfaux savior to carry out that action. It only took four years in Germany.
The second, and far happier, allusion is to the 1950s when extremism was headed not for triumph but to the showers. Racism, nativism and phony patriotism were all in full force, but they came from those who knew their backs were against the wall. The segregated south was collapsing, McCarthy had been censured by the Senate and that which would become known the 1960s was beginning to sprout.
There is no way America could revert to the model typified by McCain and Palin except by force. After all, it’s an America that no longer exists.
And the arguments are absurd, given life by a media that that can’t or won’t separate hyperbole from facts. The only thing Obama is extreme about is his own ambition propelled by a consensus politics about as radical as a bowl of Cream of Wheat without the milk and sugar.
An ABC poll suggests people aren’t falling for the nastiness:
– 52% say McCain’s pick of Palin weakens their confidence him.
– 60% say Obama’s relationship with Bill Ayers is not a legitimate issue.
– The split on ACORN as in issue is 49-40 against it being a decent issue.
If the 1950s analogy is fair, then what we are hearing is the anger of the soon to be defeated – not just in an electoral sense but in a historical one as well. What remains a mystery, however, is what will replace it.Obama’s campaign is based on trust in elite consensus rather than in popular progress. This seldom works for long, especially in a country with as many problems as America.
President Obama may soon find himself in the position of the 18th century French revolutionary who was having some wine at an outdoor cafe when a large crowd rushed by. He put down his glass, saying, “Excuse me. I must leave. I’m supposed to be leading them.”