Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Politics of illegitimacy

It is a bit off-topic for this blog, but several students have written and asked me what I think of the events in Tucson. It was a terrible human tragedy and a very sad day for our nation. It was a particularly grievous act in my mind simply because the shooting took place while an elected representative was going about her duties to represent her constituents.

We don't know why the shooter did what he did, but from past assassinations we know there is often a complex etiology for such attacks that tends to include mental illness. The role that rhetoric and imagery could have on violence is an important question, but I simply don't have an evidence-based answer. Yet, this event feels like a momentous occasion that is worthy of introspection.

As I thrash about and try and make sense of this tragedy and what it means for our nation going ahead, I settle on something I have been thinking about for awhile, and which has crystallized in my mind the past few days. The disturbing trend in American politics for losers of elections to decry the winners as being illegitimate.

I first voted for President in 1988 and I voted for the winner in that election. The country moved on pretty well.

I voted for the winner again in 1992, but there was a very different context to the aftermath of Bill Clinton's election. There was a general sentiment from some quarters that he was illegitimate as President because he received less than 50% of the popular vote cast due to the presence of Ross Perot's strong third party candidacy. Of course, the President is elected by the Electoral College and there is no stipulation that the winner must get a majority of the votes cast, though that typically was the case in modern times.

In 1996, President Clinton was re-elected with less than 50% of the votes cast (49.2% to be exact), again due to Perot being a candidate. It always bothered me that opponents of the President whom I knew personally would argue that he was illegitimately elected due to the fact that 'more people voted against him than for him.'

President Obama won approximately 53% of the popular vote, and had the largest Electoral College victory since President Reagan. Of course that hasn't stopped some of his political opponents from arguing that he is illegitimately elected even though the issue of his citizenship was long ago decided. Much of the opposition to the President has been tied to his 'otherness' I think, which is all designed to label him as illegitimate, which would make his policies all the more heinous.

Of course, my chronology skipped an election.

In 2000, the tables were turned, and I voted for the loser, Al Gore, who got more votes than did President Bush. Even though I had been irritated by the phrase after the 1992 and 1996 elections, this didn't stop me from saying to some that 'more people voted for Al Gore than President Bush' which is of course true but constitutionally irrelevant. I can vividly remember calling President Bush the 'President Select' before his January 2001 inauguration in derision of the Supreme Court's ruling in Bush v. Gore that settled the disputed election.

Several people older than I who are not big fans of President Obama have told me that they haven't seen the country 'as angry as it has been the past 2 years' in their lifetime. I always remark that they must not have come to Durham or Chapel Hill, N.C. between 2003-2008! Self righteous rage against one's political opponents is truly bipartisan.

There was a ubiquitous bumper sticker and tee shirt in Durham, N.C. around 2003 that said 'Somewhere in Texas a Village is Missing its Idiot.' This always made me chuckle until one day I heard one of my young children say that President Bush was dumb. I sternly told her that was disrespectful and asked her who she had heard that from. She said simply, you Daddy.

For some reason, I cannot get that out of my mind this week as I try and make sense of the tragedy in Tucson.

I think the essence of the progressive/liberal hubris is that we think we are smarter than everyone else. Instead of listening, and then trying to be persuasive and make the case, we are tempted to construct a defense mechanism that says that if you don't quickly adopt my view it is just because you don't understand. If only the country was filled with those as smart as me.....

I think the essence of the conservative hubris is the belief that conservatives are more moral/noble/patriotic than others. They are tempted to write off those who disagree with them as being unworthy of America because they think we don't love it enough. If only the country was filled with those as good as me.....

At their heart, both sources of hubris say that people with different views are illegitimate in one way or another. Someone who is illegitimate is not worth talking to, respecting, listening to, understanding, or even debating reasonably. Certainly not worthy of compromising with to solve the huge problems facing our nation.


  1. But the difference is that only one of these types of hubris is capable of being proven wrong using facts and reality.

  2. and which one is that?

  3. There are another set of implicit assumptions in the liberal/conservative axis.

    Liberals think that they are more informed by empathy, by humanistic values; that conservatives are ultimately self-serving, chauvinistic, and emotionally unrealistic.

    Conservatives think that they are more rigorous, willing to deal with unpleasant truths, that they are hard-headed and ultimately more logical; that liberals are sentimentalist, unrealistic, blind to the impossibility of their values and the weakness of human nature, and the fragility of the veneer of civilization that we depend on.

    Here's another contrast: liberals value critical thinking over logical thinking; conservatives value logical thinking over critical thinking.

  4. Liberal here, and I think you've captured something important.

    I was in college after President Reagan took office, laughed at the first round of jokes, and realized within six months that the liberal "humor" was actually rancid, awful, and the opposite of what we'd need to move toward changing anything we thought was wrong. Nearly all of that stuff started from the "we're smart/they're dumb" angle.

    As an addition to the analysis, I'd suggest that conservatives do their meanest attacks in fierce speeches that show their claim to nobility, while liberals do their meanest work with jokes that display their claim to brilliance.

    Thank you for reminding me of the "village idiot" bumper sticker. I think it really is the one that should be matched to Sarah Palin's cross-hairs. I've been trying to remember the anti-Reagan jokes, but all I can remember is the moment when they started to make me sick.

  5. You wrote:
    "I think the essence of the progressive/liberal hubris is that we think we are smarter than everyone else.
    I think the essence of the conservative hubris is the belief that conservatives are more moral/noble/patriotic than others. "

    This does not describe me, a left-wing progressive. In my mind, I am not only smarter than everyone else, but more moral/noble/patriotic as well.


  6. Another disturbing trend, though maybe it has always been this way, is the prevalence of political conspiracy theories. The left may not be as responsible for violent political rhetoric as the right, but it is just as responsible for conspiracy-minded thinking. We've all heard it among our ultra-progressive friends, the anti-war activists, the internet liberals. Bush planned 9/11. The US invaded Iraq for oil. The CIA set a honeytrap for Julian Assange. It goes on, and it never matters whether there is actual evidence, only that "well, the US has done terrible things in the past, you'd have to be a fool to believe what they tell you."

    It's every bit as bad as the conspiracy theories about Obama's birth certificate, because it's just as immune to reason and evidence, and just as corrosive to democratic spirit. It's a story people want to believe for emotional reasons, and the end result, like you say, is a never-ending politics of illegitimacy.

  7. As a former Democratic county chair, I really get that we liberals have our own issues with hubris. So much of the discussion among our party faithful was of the rancid 'village idiot' style you describe, I soon realized I really didn't want those folks running the world either. But I also realized that I didn't have to worry much about them getting the levers of power, because the actual liberal left is pretty well shut out of the political power structure. You wouldn't know it listening to Republicans talking nonsense about "socialist" Obama, but other than at campaign time the Democrats have no use for their left base.

    So, I see the point you're making, but while much of the discussion on the left is smug and self-serving, that's as far as it goes--it's just talk. What real trouble has the left caused since the '68 Democratic convention? Have we really been so off-putting that we've generated the current hostility from the right? I think that has other sources.

    Meanwhile, on the right, the shallowest, most caustic voices now run the Republican party and own the airwaves. And their power has and will continue to cause real trouble for our country. I certainly believe their violent rhetoric has created an atmosphere conducive to bringing out crazy people with guns, the Giffords shooting being only the most awful recent example. But if you want a more concrete example of trouble they've caused, I'd submit the Iraq war, which is plenty in itself, but other examples could be cited.

    And when you consider that in our current international conflicts Islamic fundamentalists are doing their best to gin up a war with our own gun-totin' Republican religious fundamentalists, you can begin to see trouble with a capital T.

    So, it's fine to muse about our foibles over on the left, and we've got 'em, but please don't try to make it into an equivalent, pox-on-both-your-houses argument, because they're not equivalent in influence or power, and haven't been for a long time.

  8. It is not "hubris" per se to believe that you have better _ideas_ or plans for governing than a political opponent.

    It is "hubris" to believe that you govern by right, by superior "patriotism".

    The core anger over Bush-43 was fueled by war. W-a-r. You know, killing in your name. This does not compare.

  9. Interesting comments. My biggest worry about the 'climate' is that it harms our nation's ability to make good policy, which will inevitably take compromise. I agree w/ comment that the fringe left is more held out of the Dem governing establishment than fringe right is from the Rep side. However, you don't have to think that each side is equivalent in bad behavior to think you may need to make a change yourself. And in my life experience, you rarely get anywhere waiting for they/them to make all the changes. From teaching undergrads I think the future political center of the nation is fiscally cautious and quite liberal on social issues. One of the parties will react to this better...

  10. It's certainly a valid point that self-examination is needed on the left and the right, but I see the coming years as quite dire and can't imagine what behavioral changes the left could make that would improve the situation. I believe the right is reacting negatively to the rapid social, cultural, and economic changes happening in our world, and many are in full-blown meltdown over the loss of majority status and declining power of white middle America. Not to get all dystopian, but this realignment has already been ugly, and it could get a lot worse, so I just worry your undergrads' futures could be severely undermined by the right wing reaction we're living through. And then possibly from the left wing reaction to the right, and so on.

    I think the best we on the left can do is try to understand the disruption these changes are causing for our more conservative-leaning citizens. (That's condescending, I know, but that's my take.) Government policy could help ease some of the economic disruption, but the right won't allow that.

    I'd also note that the party that was recently trounced in the polls is the one that has been fiscally responsible for 2 decades and is socially liberal. I hope your students see that and then vote.

  11. left unsaid is the notion that part of the "agita" that is expressed against obama is unease about president who is not a white man

  12. Republicans have lamented tax and spend but practiced don't tax but still spend. Dems have given Rs a free pass because we haven't talked about the deficit as much. I am hopeful that the President will lay down a consequential tax reform/deficit reduction proposal in his budget. The stars are aligned and what is best to win back moderates is also best in policy terms (a credible, long term deficit reduction strategy). I am working on a variety of efforts to try and encourage the students to be more involved.