Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Importance of History and Memory

The following commentary is taken from a post on Quora’s Website and although I don’t fundamentally agree with all of it, I believe that the post idealizes why the USA has allowed a social rift to be developed through Political Principle

Why are U.S. politics and Culture so polarized?
Stephanie Vardavas (Author of this work)


Let's take a stroll down memory lane (well, memory lane for me, anyway; I was born in 1956 and actually remember this stuff, unlike most Quorans, who are much younger).

I trace much of the currently visible polarization of US culture back to the Vietnam era and the social upheavals of the 1960s: the distribution of the birth control pill (thanks in part to the 1965 Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut, which struck down state laws prohibiting the use of contraception), the anti-war movement (and disrespect for military leadership), the haircuts, the emergence of a new recreational drug culture around marijuana and LSD, the civil rights movement, even the British Invasion heralding the new rock and roll era -- all of these things were perceived as assaults on the established order, and were met with hostility by cultural conservatives.

Also, believe it or not, as late as 1962 American children were still reciting the Lord's Prayer in public schools every morning! (I remember this, and I remember wondering why? -- it didn't seem right to me, even at age 6 as a second grader.) It took another Supreme Court decision to end that practice, which infuriated many religious people. (I think it was this decision that indoctrinated me with the idea that the Supreme Court was the good guys, a view I no longer reflexively share.) This was the Warren Court, of course, the Court of Chief Justice Earl Warren; both he and the Court were extremely controversial in those days, dating back to the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 that prohibited state-sponsored segregation in public schools. The Warren Court also handed down a number of other decisions that were anathema to social conservatives, including Gideon v. Wainwright [right to counsel for criminal defendants], Reynolds v. Sims [striking down the apportionment of the Alabama legislature, commonly referred to as the "one-man one-vote" case], and of course Miranda v. Arizona [requiring that criminal defendants be informed of their rights, especially their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination, and expressly waive them, before they could be questioned]. The social conservatives were very unhappy with the Warren Court's treatment of the Constitution as a living document instead of a fixed text. When you hear conservatives complaining about "judicial activism" today, this is what they are talking about.

In the earliest iterations of this answer I also failed to mention the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. This was not a political event per se, but it did foster a robust conspiracy industry within the United States' political culture, and the long term effects are still with us.

The Vietnam War tore America apart. It tore families apart. I don't think it's possible to overstate its effect on our modern culture. Remember that at this time cable television penetration was vanishingly low, the Internet was unknown, AM Top 40 radio was still powerful, and there were basically three and a half television networks (plus public TV) to choose from in most cities. So such a thing as mainstream culture still existed and was still potent. But a huge cultural gap was emerging between the young and the old / middle-aged. Clothing was different. Music was different. Sexual attitudes were different. Teenagers considered their parents hypocrites for drinking Martinis and taking prescription uppers and downers while smugly telling their kids not to smoke pot. There was a TV game show called "The Generation Gap" in which teenagers and their parents competed to see if any of them understood each other.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 also alienated conservatives. The Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination on the basis of race in employment, accommodation, public facilities, and access to voting, among other areas. The Voting Rights Act prohibited literacy tests, poll taxes, and other techniques that had been used successfully in southern states since Reconstruction to impede voting by black Americans. These laws were widely perceived as infringing on "states' rights," shorthand for the way Southern states routinely discriminated against and segregated black people. Until the passage of these two laws the white voters and political leadership in the American South were primarily registered Democrats (legacy of the Republican Party, as the party of Lincoln, taking an active role in registering newly freed blacks to vote). In signing the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson mused aloud that he was probably handing the South to the Republicans for at least a generation. In this he was 100% correct.

Also during this period J. Edgar Hoover was at the height of his powers as FBI Director. The FBI tapped telephones, paid informants, and maintained dossiers on millions of loyal Americans who were innocent of any crime, simply because they attended antiwar meetings, participated in political protests, or engaged in other lawful exercises of their First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and assembly. A popular TV program, "The FBI," glamorized the lives of agents. But civil libertarians feared and resented the FBI's domestic surveillance activities, feeding antigovernment paranoia on the left.

1968 was a crucible. In 1968 The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated, and Presidential candidate George Wallace was crippled in a failed assassination attempt. These shootings -- especially the deaths of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy -- served as major drivers of gun control advocacy on the left, and added to the alienation and disillusionment felt by so many young people during this time. Later that year (after a nominating convention that was plagued with credentials challenges between mainstream and insurgent delegations, actual rioting, police actions and arrests, all played out on national television -- including the arrest of CBS News' Dan Rather on the convention floor) the Vietnam War cost Vice President Humphrey the White House, and Richard Nixon became President.

President Nixon cultivated a deep and paranoid resentment of "hippies" and "liberals," even went so far as to establish an "enemies' list" that included names like Paul Newman, who was on the list because he was famous and liberal and had criticized Nixon in public. By Nixon's second term he was well on the path to self-destruction, but he did manage to have a very potent effect on American culture.

In January 1973 the Supreme Court decided Roe vs. Wade, thus inciting more anger and resentment among religious conservatives. At that time, though, they had relatively few ways to channel those feelings, outside of shouted sermons and church newsletters.

The impeachment of President Nixon occurred in this atmosphere and created a certain amount of resentment in conservative circles. Even though it had been a truly bipartisan affair, and once it became clear that Nixon had engaged in obstruction of justice the leadership of his own party called on him at the White House and made it clear that he could not remain in office, some conservatives preferred to consider Nixon a victim of the antiwar liberals.

President Ford was a likeable man who had been more vigorously partisan in his younger days (he had supported efforts to impeach Chief Justice Warren, back in the day). Ford pardoned former President Nixon, which infuriated large number of liberals, who wanted to see Nixon tried and convicted for his crimes. Ford issued this pardon because he felt it would be in the best interests of the country to put Watergate behind it, and did his best to calm the passions unleashed by the pardon, with limited success. When he was defeated by Jimmy Carter in 1976 the pardon was probably one of the principal reasons. President Carter became wildly unpopular for a few reasons, notably the economic stagflation of the era, the 1979 energy crisis resulting from the unrest in Iran, his decision that the US should boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and the taking of 52 Americans in Iran as hostages of the new revolutionary government for well over a year.

In November 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States in a landslide. The same night Reagan was elected, the US Senate was also taken over by the Republicans, most of whom were far more conservative than the Democrats they had defeated (and some of whom had defeated authentically liberal Republicans in primaries -- think Al d'Amato beating Jacob Javits). More seeds of our modern culture war were sown during the Reagan Administration in a number of ways, many but not all of them political.

As you know, the President nominates all Federal judges, who have life tenure once they are confirmed by the Senate. Before Reagan, mindful of the judges' life tenancy, Presidents had always made an effort to make bipartisan appointments, normally in consultation with both of the Senators from the states where the judicial vacancies existed. No more. Reagan set up an office inside the White House whose sole function was to vet the conservative credentials of prospective appointees to the Federal bench, and made a point of selecting nominees who were young enough and conservative enough that they would remake the Federal bench for generations to come. With a Republican majority in the Senate, these nominees were easily confirmed, with the one most notable exception being Reagan's appointment of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.

Bork was a law professor at Yale who was best remembered for his stint as Solicitor General of the United States. In October 1973 when the President ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, Richardson resigned in protest rather than carry out the order. Richardson's deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also resigned in protest. Next in line was Solicitor General Bork, who carried out the order. When Reagan appointed Bork to the Supreme Court fourteen years later, Bork's views on executive authority, civil rights, voting rights, and other subjects were controversial. He became the first Supreme Court appointee ever opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, and ultimately the coalition of organizations opposing him persuaded enough Senators to vote against his nomination.

This event crystallized a huge amount of political anger on the right, and at about the same time the Federal Communications Commission decided to repeal the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine had required broadcasters (as a condition of holding licenses to use the public airwaves) to present differing and contrasting views on the controversial issues of the day. The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine set the stage for the birth of modern conservative talk radio and hate radio, a new and very profitable platform from which to conduct culture wars, which fed on all the resentments that had been brewing on the right since the 1960s.

The election of Bill Clinton as President in 1992 was another moment of upheaval. He was the first baby boomer President and had avoided Vietnam era military service in a manner that was not uncommon among that generation, but which contrasted to poor advantage with the WWII heroics of the man he defeated, President George H.W. Bush. The cultural conservatives didn't like the Clintons one bit. They treated each other like peers, they both had degrees from Yale Law School, Mrs. Clinton had not changed her name at marriage (but rather later on), and he seemed undisciplined and slick, hence his "slick Willy" nickname. I don't need to take you through the whole drama of the Clinton impeachment except to say that it was during the Clinton administration that the Internet became a mainstream feature of people's lives and it began to seem that just about everyone had access to cable television. These technologies supported further fracturing of mainstream culture and exacerbated our tendencies to demonize those who did not share our core beliefs.

Thanks to more recent events which are more familiar to those reading this answer (2000 Presidential election and its aftermath including Supreme Court case of Bush v. Gore, events of 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Supreme Court decision in Citizens United case), those tendencies seem even more pronounced today


*Resnick’s Comment – In my opinion this is a good starting point where we can develop an outline of what has occurred to fracture society. There is a lot more that can be added over time, yet this perspective is a great starting point”