Political Discourse in the Age of the Smackdown

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Elian Gonzalez: Symbol of the new political discourse?

Americans have always been each other's evil twins — tribes of opposites, Hatfields and McCoys at one another's throats. They have been Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, nativists and immigrants, slaveowners and abolitionists, rebs and federals, wets and dries, isolationists and internationalists, believers and secularists, hippies and the silent majority.

And now, so equally matched it took a 5-4 Supreme Court to judge the election, we have Gore's blue-liberal America, trailing its agenda (pro-big government, pro-choice on abortion, anti-gun, pro-labor, environmentalist, against capital punishment, etc., etc.) and its conviction that it was robbed of the 2000 election, pitted against Bush's red-conservative (pro-life, anti–central government, pro-business, pro-development, pro-voucher, pro-prayer, pro-flag etc. etc.) America.

Two possibilities:

1) The current divisive anger will dissipate as the months go by and the new red-conservative administration creates a program and a record — facts on the ground — and as the realities of power organize their own dynamic. Americans in the past have been pretty good at outgrowing their hatreds; they have had the Constitution, material abundance and vast physical space to help them do so.

Or 2) The rage, grievance, and bitterness will harden, with what ugly result down the road? America will become a vast superpower Northern Ireland of the mouth, and the election of 2000 will seem like the Battle of the Boyne, and the Troubles will just go on and on. Within limits, of course, that is just political normality, only nastier.

Arguing for the first scenario is the fact that Americans are not only a fairly tolerant people but usually have short attention spans. Twenty-four/seven cable television may unnaturally inflame and prolong a story (Elian Gonzalez, let us say). But once it is over, it is over. New dramas and sensations supersede the old one, and in time people will not quite remember what a chad was. Further, it would be against the interests of blue America — self-destructive, in fact — for the Democratic leadership to overdo its righteousness and its demonization of the Bush administration. The columnist Michael Kelly has pointed out that a Democratic ideological jihad might have the same result as the Republicans' disastrous overinterpretation of their mandate in 1994.

But there are reasons to expect the second scenario. For one thing, the two chief channels of our discourse as a people, television and the Internet, encourage emotionalism and abhor compromise. Machines get more brilliant; people get more volatile, superficial, unreasonable.

The Japanese have a word, haragei, which refers to the hara, the belly (as in hara-kiri) which is, in Japanese culture, what the heart is in the Western tradition: the core and home of will, authentic emotion, sincerity. Haragei, (a sumo wrestling match of contesting authenticities; the art and politics of the gut, basically) is not articulate or rational, but merely asserts its mystic will. Some Japanese have worried that their country's politicians rely too much on haragei, and have suggested that Japanese should westernize themselves toward more rational, systematic debate.

I think that Americans, inflamed by television, are moving in the opposite direction — toward haragei and away from intelligent argument about anything. Television detests an open mind. An open mind is bad theater. What television wants is passion, vivid characters defined only by the positions that they hold, the ideas that they enact: heroes and villains, politics as extreme fighting. Television's idea of good civics is people screaming at each other from opposite sides of an issue for the entertainment of a nation of groundlings. And television's bottom-feeding, bottom-lining imperatives (a noisy swordplay of issues for the simple-minded masses, translated to high ratings and profits) have conspired with the instantaneous capabilities of the Web. Rage fires and cross-fires through the ether at the twitch of a billion mouse-fingers to create toxic political weather systems, an atmosphere of unthinking scorn, slur and shallow but blinding indignation.

It's raining indignation, contempt and vicious stupidity across much of America.