The yewwwww-yuck presidential campaign of 2016 excites anxiety across the political spectrum. Democratic strategists hope naturally to capitalize on the weariness of many voters with plugging their ears whenever Donald J. Trump, and the many who would take him down, come within range: which is all the time. The more alert of these strategists, nonetheless, will put aside questions of short-term gain to join Americans of all persuasions in inquiring: Huh? All this is happening in America? Lordalmighty.
The trash-talking, the raining down of taunts and insults, the semi-scatological style in verbal exchange on the campaign trail and in campaign coverage leaves many anxious and debilitated. No wonder. It’s more than a matter of Kennedy-and-Nixon-didn’t-do-this. There is visceral fear that America is becoming something radically out of keeping with its touted national commitment to inspire and uplift other nations. Inspire ’em to what nowadays? — to contemplation of, um, male body parts?
Is it possible we’re dirtying the democratic process beyond the capacity of such moral washing machines as remain in service? And anyway who’s “we”? The bloggers, columnists, and talk show commentators? The candidates themselves? Not entirely. There are the spectators to consider — us, in short, cheering on the gladiators, turning away from calls for quarter.
Is it — one hates to ask this — that comparatively few seem to care much for the means of politics so long as the end — victory — stays in view? A kind of sports-entertainment culture seems dominant: Winning isn’t the main thing, it’s the only thing; a good belly laugh beats another reading of the Federalist Papers; if you don’t like it, switch off the tube; that sort of thing. One has the sinking feeling that the candidates aren’t the problem. The problem may be — us?
We don’t live in the ’50s anymore, you know. We live in the 21st century. We marvel at the odd habit most people had, up to somewhere around the mid-1960s, of assenting to the proposition that democratic governance requires particular behaviors, particular habits of mind. Among those habits of mind: a taste for “right,” and for “truth,” as contrasted with their opposites. The operative proposition was that truth could be, and had been, discerned; that right could be successfully measured and held up as a standard for performance — a norm, that is to say.
The only norm we regularly run across today is normlessness: the apprehension that democracy privileges choice in just about everything. Aren’t we in favor of “tolerance”? Then let us tolerate… whatever. With exceptions for those areas reserved, generally by the most insistent political and cultural voices, for moral policing: racism, sexism, homophobia. The grounds for enforcement in these areas are chiefly political. We can’t allow racists, sexists, and homophobes to enjoy any role in governance. They have to be shamed — see? Apart from that, the historic virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and so on hardly come up for mention. They belong, seemingly, to a world when blacks couldn’t drink at white water fountains and women couldn’t abort their own babies.
The ease with which old habits of action and belief were discarded, or made out as inherently ridiculous, is undoubtedly what excites “tolerance” for the candidate who presents himself — sometimes — as understanding we can’t go on the way we’re going. Backlash, invited by the claimed moral superiority of today’s cultural voices, is what powers the Trump and, in a closely related way, the Cruz campaigns. Picture Trump in boxing trunks, aiming roundhouse punches at the instigators of unwarranted social and, especially, political encroachment. This is what hundreds of thousands cheer.
Yet the aim of pugilism is the flattening of opponents, and the copping of prizes, not the propping up of depleted norms, never mind how basic to the preservation of society. It seems nostalgic, and maybe idealistic in the soupier sense, to say so; but the founders — remember them? — understood America as a land whose freedoms would endure only so long as they drew nourishment from its moral habits: its grasp of dignity, duty, and the need for restraint in many areas of daily life: too many to enumerate in any constitution, hence implied by the structure of government itself rather than written down and listed.
Failure to practice civilized restraint was always going to invite reprisals — of a social kind, a cultural kind; preeminently, perhaps, a political kind, with fists flying and angry voices declaiming.
Like now? Like now, it seems to me.
We have every right and reason to worry. A dictatorship can withstand debasement; not so a people’s government, whose staying power depends on the decisions millions make every minute with respect to good and bad, right and wrong. Undermine, if not pulverize, the standards for judging these values and you open the door to — who knows, really? The law of the fist, the taunt, the knockdown? The law of whatever state of affairs coincides with slurs, lies, insults, acts of debasement?
I think that is where we are now. I heartily hope I’m wrong.