A couple of syndicated columns published in the last several weeks seem from this lofty office (my office is in a loft that overlooks the living room) on this quiet street to be a good assessment of today’s politics and how we got here.
Cal Thomas wrote of the Republican presidential campaign in “Sewer Politics” in a March 1 column that he was going to talk about gutter politics “but given Donald Trump’s horrid statements, the gutter would be a step up because things have descended into the sewer. Never in modern times has there been a presidential candidate who has hurled more personal insults and hurtful accusations at his fellow candidates and others who disagree with him. It should embarrass a normal person, but Trump appears beyond embarrassment.”
Thomas admits he is amazed by the continued strong support evangelicals are showing Trump and the general silence about that support by evangelical leaders. “This is what can happen when some pastors who are called to a different kingdom and a different King settle for an earthly kingdom and a lesser king,” he wrote. However he praises Max Lucado, a best-selling writer who told Christianity Today he felt he had to speak out because of “Trump’s derision of people.” He says he would not be speaking up except that, “he repeatedly brandishes the Bible and calls himself a Christian.” Lucado thinks it is “beyond reason” for Trump “to call himself a Christian one day and call someone a bimbo the next or make fun of somebody’s menstrual cycle.”
Thomas suggests at the end that this election could become not a choice for the lesser of two evils but a choice “between the least evil of two lesser.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks, in his February 26 column, noted a rise in the last thirty years of people who are against politics, which Brooks says is recognition “of the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions.” He says it’s the effort to balance or reconcile or compromise those interest, or at least a majority of them” by following rules established “in a constitution or in custom to help you reach these compromises in a way everybody considers legitimate.” He concedes it’s a messy, muddled process in which “disappointment is normal” because people have to settle for less than they want.”
He thinks the Tea Party is the best example of the anti-politics movement that wants to elect people with no political experience. “They delegitimize compromise and deal-making. They’re willing to trample the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power.” But, he writes, “They don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victory for themselves and their doctrine,” a process that has had “a wretched effect on our democracy.” And, he argues, the anti-politics movement is sending this nation into “a series of overlapping downward spirals.”
How is it doing that? First, by electing people with no political skills or experience, he says. “That incompetence leads to dysfunctional government, which leads to more disgust with government, which leads to a demand for even more outsiders.”
Brooks thinks these politically-inexperienced people “don’t accept that politics is a limited activity. They make soaring promises and raise ridiculous expectations. When those expectations are not met, voters grow cynical and disgusted, turn even further in the direction of antipolitcs” leading to the election of people who “refuse compromise and so block the legislative process” which, in turn, “destroys public trust (which) makes deal-making harder.”
And along comes Donald Trump, a man Brooks thinks is the culmination of all of these trends: “the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means.” He compares Trump to the “insecure school yard bully.”
Brooks says he printed out a New York Times list of Trump’s Twitter insults. Thirty-three pages is what it took. And he cites a study by political scientist Matthew MacWilliams that Trump supporters are likely to score high on tests that measure authoritarianism.
He concludes, “This isn’t just an American phenomenon. Politics is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide. The answer to Trump in politics. It’s acknowledging other people exist. It’s taking pleasure in that difference and hammering out workable arrangements…”
Those of us who have or have had front row seats to the deterioration of politics in Missouri know precisely what Cal Thomas and David Brooks are writing about.
What it all boils down to is that the sewer politics we—and many of you—complain about is our own fault. We have done this to ourselves and, quite frankly, we have been urged on in our destructive efforts by people in this columnist’s own medium, radio, who have found rudeness and disrespect profitable. Analysts in years to come will undoubtedly find today’s era of antipolitics had many causes, but the root cause is that a large part of the general public bought into the idea that the way to solve government problems was to elect people who don’t respect government and the political system that has made it work.
Thomas and Brooks have identified the problem and how we got here. So what is to be done about it?
Of all the public figures this reporter has watched in his forty-plus years of covering Missouri politics, John Danforth is the one he most respects. A few months ago Danforth put out a new book. It is worth reading. In a future post, we will offer some of his reflections.
But in the meantime it might be good to think about the necessity of repealing term limits. Missourians approved them but by their own actions on that very day and in every election since Missourians have shown they don’t really believe in them. And it seems from this lofty view that the Brooks’ overlapping downward spirals accelerated in Missouri from that day.