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Friday, July 31, 2015

Demogoguery in Times of Crisis

In the fall of 1971, I entered graduate school in history and began writing my first seminar paper, about the U.S. Congress and foreign policy from late 1944 until early 1947.  The research involved going through virtually the entire Congressional Record for those years, but, it quickly became a labor of love.  What struck me most about the debates was the enormous spread of opinions within the Congress and the violence with which they were expressed.   At 24, I had already been a political junkie for about ten years, and the 1960s were not among the quietest eras of American political history, yet I had literally never heard anything like what I was reading.  The spectrum ran all the way from left-wingers with Communist associations (and in a couple of cases, an actual Communist past) on one side, to avowed racists and anti-Semites like Congressman John Rankin and Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi on the other.  One exchange, between liberal Democrat Burton Wheeler of Montana and Bilbo, has always stuck in my mind.  When Bilbo referred to “the voters of my state,” Wheeler immediately asked him what percentage of the people in his state voted (the answer was about 10%.)  Bilbo replied that all the qualified people voted.   The two men repeated the exact same exchange about three times, whereupon Wheeler took it a step further. “That is why the state of Mississippi has such excellent representatives,” he said.  “That’s right,” Bilbo replied—“we get the cream of the crop in Mississippi.”

Another dramatic exchange occurred on February 22, 1945, when Rankin accused Congressman Frank Hook of Michigan, a left-wing Democrat elected with labor support, of having been “mixed up with” the Communist Party.  “You are a god damned liar, Hook replied, whereupon Rankin, 62 and frail, attacked Hook, a former middleweight boxer in his 50s, with fists flailing.  Other members separated them.  The Chicago Tribune, a right-wing paper that reported the incident in thrilling detail, ran full-length photos of the two men and all their body measurements, just as they would for any boxing match.  Under the rules of the House, Hook was silenced for the rest of the day for his personal attack upon Rankin.

I know now that we now live, once again, in an age like that.  Last Friday evening, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who is trying to win the Republican nomination by taking the most extreme positions among all the candidates, took to the Senate floor to call another Senator a liar.  But in a bizarre twist, his target was not Bernie Sanders, Al Franken, Elizabeth Warren, or Kirsten Gillenbrand—four of the tiny minority of Senators whose views are remotely similar to those of a mainstream progressive in 1945.  Instead, Cruz called his own majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, a liar, because McConnell was not going to allow a vote on the continuation of the Export-Import Bank, an agency right wing Republicans are determined to kill, after having told a Republican group of Senators (Cruz claimed) that he would not do so.  And while I am not about to attack McConnell for failing to cross the Senate floor to engage Cruz in fisticuffs, it seems that there was no move to silence Cruz on the floor, and indeed, McConnell declined any comment

The Republican reaction shows that the Republican right feels just as embattled and just as desperate as it did after twelve years of the New Deal.  It is similar to the Republican reaction to another demagogue, Senator Joseph McCarthy (to whom Cruz is often compared, not least because of their noticeable physical resemblance) in 1950-53.  “Tea Party groups, the Heritage Foundation’s political arm, and Charles G. and David H. Koch’s Freedom Partners,” the New York Tines reports, “immediately rushed to Mr. Cruz’s defense.”  Since McConnell is not a former POW and a war hero, it seems unlikely that any of Cruz’s fellow presidential candidates will stand up for him, either.  Like the battle against Joe McCarthy in its second and decisive phase (1953-4), the battle against Cruz, Donald Trump and their ilk will take place primarily within the Republican Party.   Clearly Jeb Bush would prefer to avoid a confrontation with the right wing, but, like President Eisenhower, he may have no choice. Meanwhile, Cruz, the conservative media, and other Republican politicians have reduced American political discourse to levels of demagoguery and hatred that can be compared only to the periods of the Civil War and the New Deal.  I do not know how long it will take to emerge from our new swamp.

1 comment:

Bozon said...


Thanks for this great post.

American politics has almost always, it seems, been a swamp.

I am not really a political scholar, just have read a few good books.

There are satisfactory explanations for this state of affairs, from the beginning.

Bailyn talked about some of them in The Origins Of American Politics.

Tuchman in The Proud Tower pointed out some good reasons, she only thought very much of the first 6. See my blog for that reference. This fact has always been widely commented on, it seems.

I don't know, American politics is just not that intellectually stimulating, for the obvious reasons.

all the best