Our toxic democracy

After the murder of President Kennedy 50 years ago last week, the Washington Post observed, “Partisan feelings, petty differences disappeared in common grief.”

We suspect that a presidential murder in this century would leave partisanship in Washington, D.C., largely unaffected and undisturbed.

Oh, there would be some bows in the direction of propriety, some crocodile tears and rhetorical chest beating. There would be some Oscar-worthy performances. But very soon today’s champions of polarization would be back at work.

So much has changed in the last half century. After the assassination in Dallas, Sen. Barry Goldwater—who enjoyed Kennedy’s company and would the next year become the Republican presidential nominee—was genuinely saddened and shocked. In the succeeding months, Republican Everett Dirksen and Democrat Hubert Humphrey worked together to pass Kennedy’s 1964 Civil Rights Act.

That’s not to say that a healthy partisanship disappeared altogether, nor would it have been a positive development if it had. Legislation and policies must be put through rigorous scrutiny in a competitive process in order that they work when they are implemented.

But that’s a very different thing from today’s toxic politics in which the intent is to obstruct, destroy careers, blacken reputations, and employ lies to defeat both legislators and legislation.

Imagine if, after the Civil Rights Act was passed, legislators refused for several years to accept that decision and refused to act on additional, unrelated measures unless the Civil Rights Act was first repealed. Imagine if legislators shut down the government, preventing good working people from getting services, even organ transplants, because partisan advantage had become a greater value than the functioning of government.

Imagine if legislators had used public relations techniques to invent claims with no basis in fact to employ against the Civil Rights Act and kept repeating them over and over and over and over, long after they had been discredited by fact checkers.

Well, that’s where we’re at.

Or go back even further, to Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency. Imagine if extremist billionaires of the time such as H.L. Hunt had ponied up huge sums of money and sent operatives out to target Kennedy’s strengths instead of his weaknesses, as in the Karl Rove techniques used these days. They might have assembled a few disgruntled veterans who had run-ins with Kennedy during World War II and put them out front in a “PT Boat Veterans for Truth” organization whose strings were pulled by shadowy figures who concocted all manner of claims designed to destroy Kennedy’s wartime reputation for heroism.

Well, that’s where we’re at.

In the years since Kennedy’s death, we have backed into a political system in which big campaign money can be more easily obtained through employment of polarization than through reputable, earnest hard work and decency—and in which political leaders who know better accept it as the price they must pay to win.

And the public has let it happen. Voters are unwilling to see through these kinds of tactics and punish candidates who use them. We have a political system that, with every passing decade, becomes more despicable and repulsive, driving good people out of public life.

As Mort Sahl has said, “Darwin was wrong.”