The Magazine

Paradise Lost

America was great, once (in November 2008).

Nov 1, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 07 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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The American people are in for it. When Republicans lose elections, they blame each other: Talk radio blames the RINOs; the squishes blame the pro-lifers; the social conservatives blame the Big Business types, and so on. Each faction maintains that their party will never find acceptance with voters until the rest of the movement looks just like them.

When Democrats lose, on the other hand, they blame America. They tut-tut about gullible voters being way-laid by crafty messaging. Or rubes foolishly voting against their self-interest. Or middle Americans being a bunch of fundamentalist crazies. (Remember the “Jesusland” map after 2004?) With a Republican wave about to wash over the Obama administration, the public is due for a good talking-to. On the nation’s op-ed pages, it’s already started.

What’s particularly striking about the 2010 version of this ritual exorcism is that just 24 months ago, many of these same scolds were telling us how America had (finally) become a pretty enlightened country.

Take the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson. He’s exasperated by the American people these days. “According to polls,” he writes, “Americans are in a mood to hold their breath until they turn blue.” The fact that Americans aren’t going to vote for his preferred political party means that, in Robinson’s view, “The American people are acting like a bunch of spoiled brats.”

In another column Robinson shakes his head in unbelief at what a crazy country this is:

Okay, I want to make sure I understand. Two years ago, with the nation facing a host of complex and difficult problems, voters put a bunch of thoughtful, well-educated people in charge of the government. Now many of those same voters, unhappy and impatient, have decided that things will get better if some crazy, ignorant people are running the show? Seriously? .  .  . This isn’t politics, it’s insanity.

But America’s mental instability is a sometime thing. Just 24 months ago, Robinson was basking in the wisdom of the great and good American people. The day before the 2008 election, with Obama ahead comfortably in most polls, Robinson wrote that African Americans “can all have a new kind of pride in our country.” After Obama won the presidency, he was even more bullish:

[S]omething changed .  .  . when Americans​—​white, black, La-ti-no, Asian​—​entrusted a black man with the power and responsibility of the presidency. .  .  . For me, the emotion of this moment has less to do with Obama than with the nation. Now I know how some people must have felt when they heard Ronald Reagan say “It’s morning again in America.” The new sunshine feels warm on my face.

Over at Time magazine, Joe Klein went further. After Obama won, Klein wrote that “this election was about much more than issues. It was the ratification of an essential change in the nature of the country.” Obama’s victory was, Klein said, “a breathtaking statement of American open-mindedness and, yes, our native liberality.”

“Obama promises a respite from the nonstop anger of the recent American political wars, the beginning of an era of civility, if not comity,” Klein observed. “Already,” he noted, “the Obama ethos is slipping into the nation’s cultural bloodstream.” If only it had been so. Surveying the Tea Partiers pushing toward the front of the line in contests across the country, Klein now laments that “there is something profoundly diseased about a society that idolizes its ignoramuses and disdains its experts. It is a society that no longer takes itself seriously.”

Whatever else you might say about the New York Times, it takes itself very, very seriously. So nowhere has the whiplash been felt more sharply. Maureen Dowd was excited about the America that emerged on Election Night 2008. “I grew up here,” she wrote, “and it was the first time I’ve ever seen the city wholly, happily integrated, with a mood redolent of New York in the weeks after 9/11.” Now she worries that “there’s an untamed beast rampaging through American politics. But this beast does not seem blessed; rather it has loosed a kind of ugliness and wildness in the land.”

Bob Herbert has taken the reversal even harder. Two years ago he wrote that “voters said no to incompetence and divisiveness and elbowed their way past the blight of racism that has been such a barrier to progress for so long. .  .  . The nation deserves to take a bow. This is not the same place it used to be.”

Alas, we’re now the place we used to be again. Here’s Herbert from just a few weeks ago:

There is a great deal of hatred and bigotry in this country, but it does not define the country. The daily experience of most Americans is not a bitter experience and for all of our problems we are in a much better place on these matters than we were a half century ago. But I worry about the potential for violence that grows out of unrestrained, hostile bombast. We’ve seen it so often.

No one has been more jilted than Frank Rich. Here’s Rich rhapsodizing about America the Beautiful just after Obama’s election:

For eight years, we’ve been told by those in power that we are small, bigoted and stupid—easily divided and easily frightened. This was the toxic catechism of Bush-Rove politics. It was the soiled banner picked up by the sad McCain campaign, and it was often abetted by an amen corner in the dominant news media. We heard this slander of America so often that we all started to believe it, liberals most certainly included.  .  .  .

So let’s be blunt. Almost every assumption about America that was taken as a given by our political culture on Tuesday morning was proved wrong by Tuesday night.

There was lots more where that came from. In November 2008 Frank Rich was, for the first time—or at least for the first time in a long time—proud of his country. “The actual real America is everywhere,” he sang. 

It is the America that has been in shell shock since the aftermath of 9/11, when our government wielded a brutal attack by terrorists as a club to ratchet up our fears, betray our deepest constitutional values and turn Americans against one another in the name of “patriotism.” What we started to remember the morning after Election Day was what we had forgotten over the past eight years, as our abusive relationship with the Bush administration and its press enablers dragged on: That’s not who we are. So even as we celebrated our first black president, we looked around and rediscovered the nation that had elected him.

These days, Rich is rediscovering the nation that elected Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes. Taking stock of New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, Rich warned that 

Paladino is no anomaly in American politics in 2010. He’s just the most clownish illustration of where things have been heading for two years and are still heading. Like the farcical Christine O’Donnell in another blue Northeastern state, he’s a political loss-leader, if you will, whose near-certain defeat on Nov. 2 allows us to indulge in a bit of denial about the level of rage still coursing, sometimes violently, through our national bloodstream.

Rich goes on to warn Times readers about death threats against the president and an increased danger from man-caused disasters (domestic militia division). “Don’t expect the extremism and violence in our politics to subside magically after Election Day,” Rich whispers, “no matter what the results.”

The actual real America? She was glorious while she lasted.


 

For his part, President Obama has resisted such excitable over-readings of his fellow citizens. In fact, his appraisal of the public has remained reasonably constant. Sure, Obama explained a couple weeks ago that “part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we’re hardwired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country’s scared.”

But Obama was never completely sold on the soundness of the body politic. Recall that when he first let slip his view that people “get bitter” and “cling” to their “guns” and “religion,” it was April 2008. He wasn’t talking about Republican mouth-breathers​—he was talking about Democratic primary voters. And even after Americans got with the program and voted for him, Obama still wasn’t convinced the country had changed. 

In his Inaugural Address he sighed, “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.” In other words, just because Americans voted him in, he wasn’t ready to let us off the hook for being a bunch of petty, lying, childish nincompoops.

We probably had it coming.

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