August 20, 2014

Political Extremism is Part of Our History

English: The western front of the United State...
The western front of the United States Capitol. The Neoclassical style building is located in Washington, D.C., on top of Capitol Hill at the east end of the National Mall. The Capitol was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here in the United States, our political system often seems broken. The people have little confidence that those we send to Congress have our interests in mind, and we seldom feel empowered to bring about the sort of change we want. The political landscape seems hopelessly divided by a toxic form of hyper-partisanship that makes reasonable discussion all but impossible.

This all seems to be getting worse, and it is likely part of why voter turnout and political engagement continue to decline. Increasing numbers of people have opted out of the political process in a sort of learned helplessness. If what I do makes no difference, why bother?

In a recent post at The Daily Beast, John Avlon, author of Wingnuts: Extremism in the Age of Obama, reminds us that much of what we are experiencing is not new and not necessarily insurmountable. We've been here before.
American political history has been marked by periodic eruptions of the “heated exaggeration, auspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that Richard Hofstadter famously characterized as “the paranoid style in American politics.” Wingnuts have masqueraded under different names and causes at different times, but they have always been committed to an “us against them” framing of domestic debates while inflaming group hatred in the name of politics and alleged principle. They prey on fear and ignorance.
Avlon's post, which is an excerpt from his book, provides a brief overview of political extremism, conspiracy theories, and some of the more embarrassing examples of political rhetoric in our nation's history. The point is that none of this is new; it has defined us from the beginning.
There is always the divisive drumbeat of ‘us against them’—the demagogue’s favorite formula. There is always an emotional appeal to an idealized past, targeted to people who feel besieged by cultural change, paired with the promise of a well-deserved return to power after years of resentment. And there is always the sale of special knowledge, pulling the curtain back on a monstrous conspiracy that will prove once and for all that your political opponents are not just misguided, but evil. The result is not only vindication, but also the self-serving sense that only you can save the republic.
Much of this reminds me of Charles Pierce's Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, a book which I really enjoyed. I believe I'll have to add Avlon's book to my reading list. I haven't felt much like reading anything on politics for awhile, but I'm sure I will eventually.

I think that this is an example of the value of having some knowledge of history. Knowing our history helps us place current events in a larger context, and it is likely that doing so may not only normalize our experience to some degree but show us some potential solutions.
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