Long title without an obvious connection. I was reading John Nichols in the Nation about Australian politics and their equivalent of the old moderate Republican which he calls an endangered species followed by an opinion piece in Politico about the disinformation age by Neal Gabler. Thinking about it I realized that the two were related. The demise of the moderate Republican has destroyed the ability of Democrats and Republicans to have a conversation in a civil facts and it now threatens the ability of either party to govern.
Growing up in Middle West in the latter half of the 20th century, I was surrounded by moderate Republicans of the old “Main Street” school—former Ilowa Congressman Jim Leach, former Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson, former Illinois Senator Chuck Percy and former Illinois Congressman John Anderson, former Wisconsin Governor Warren Knowles and former Wisconsin Congressman Bill Steiger—all of whom embraced environmental, civil rights and clean government principles that made them worthy competitors with the Democrats at election time and worthy governing partners when the voting was done.
The suggestion that Leach, Steiger, Percy or Anderson might find a place in today’s Republican Party would provoke laughter in anyone familiar with the contemporary definition of the term “tea party.” Like the great modern Republicans of the recent past: former President Dwight Eisenhower, former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, former New York City Mayor John Lindsay, former Massachusetts Senator Ed Brooke, former Connecticut Senator Lowell Weicker and dozens of other national leaders, the Midwest’s moderate Republicans would be about as likely to secure a Republican nomination these days as Barack Obama. (In point of fact, Obama’s governing style, with its emphasis on compromise and seeking private-sector solutions rather than classic governmental fixes, owes more to the moderate Republican tradition than to the liberal Democratic model of a Franklin Roosevelt.)
He contrasts the situation with Australia.
In Australia, I’ve appeared with Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, the former leader of the conservative opposition party that’s roughly equivalent to the American Republicans. (They’re called “Liberals.” But that’s a reference to the traditional European term for fans of free markets and limited regulation.)
Turnbull, a former journalist who made millions in business, is enthusiastic about the private sector and more than willing to score government bureaucracy. But he is not a cookie-cutter conservative. A genuine “republican,” he wants to cut Australia’s last ties to the British Commonwealth and make the country a republic. A convert to Catholicism, he breaks with the church to support reproductive rights and stem cell research. He backs gay and lesbian rights. He’s concerned about climate change. A tech-savvy blogger who reads the ancient Greeks on his Kindle, he’s in the thick of Australia’s debate about how to build a state-of-the-art national broadband system.
Nichols points out that Turnbull is in the same mold as David Cameron, the new prime minister of England who is partnering with the Liberal Party. I thought it a strange coalition, but is it different from Everett Dirksen working with Lyndon Johnson to pass legislation? Probably not.
[I think Dirksen is the man in glasses to the right of Johnson in the picture]
So how have we lost the ability to have a civil dialogue? The internet and blogs like this one. Fox News and MSNBC. The fall of the non-partisan television news program. The decline in newspaper readership. Or all of the above.
The recent Pew Research Center poll revealed that 18 percent of respondents believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim, and a whopping 43 percent are unsure exactly what religion he practices. This is disheartening on many levels — not least that it illustrates an astonishing degree of ignorance.
It is unlikely, however, that Americans are dumber now than they were, say, 25 years ago. With more of us attending college, we might even be smarter. But higher education rates and easier access to information have been undermined by what amounts to a vast and insidious revolutionary force — a kind of anti-Enlightenment in which facts yield to rumor, reason to uninformed opinion and objectivity to proudly declared subjectivity.
We swim in a limitless sea of misinformation, even disinformation, without much inclination to separate truth from fiction.
Is this a flaw in the American character, this inability to recognize the truth? Gabler reaches back to de Tocqueville and his observation that Americans believe that they are all equal. Some how truth has become a tool of the elite.
Daniel Moynihan famously said that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts. Well, Moynihan spoke too soon. From the political shoutfests on TV and radio to the endless drone of sports radio callers to the millions of vanity blogs, opinion has rapidly become fact.
The idea that there is such a thing as verifiable truth — such as Obama being a Christian — is increasingly seen as elitist. It’s as if truth were yet another scheme by the powerful to impose their will on everyone else.
This overzealous sense of democracy has been encouraged by the right-wing, which has a stake in taking on science and evidence because these things are often likely to betray the tenets of their beliefs. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) offered one example of informational demagoguery on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, saying “I take the president at his word” that he is a Christian.
So why is the Republican leadership so anxious to appear unintelligent and unable to stand up to the facts? Is that why the moderate Republican is an endangered species? Gabler believes that we are entering a post-Enlightenment era.
Steven Colbert has jokingly snarled that facts are liberal. The problem for the right is that facts are stubborn, so when you disagree with them — whether it is global warming or evolution or the effect of tax cuts on economic growth — you want to substitute your own “facts” for the allegedly objective ones.
Indeed, of the multitude of ways that President George W. Bush changed America, this may have been the most important. He helped legitimize the idea of individual truth. In doing so, he became the first president to challenge the old Enlightenment foundation on which this country was established.
Nichols points out
What makes Turnbull most like the American moderate Republicans of old is his style. When we shared the platform at the Walkley Foundation’s forum on election coverage, he was confident, not arrogant. His wit was quick and cutting. He refused to dumb things down and he knew how to charm an audience that might not have liked his party but did like him.
“He refused to dumb things down….” And that is still another issue. When you have your own facts, you don’t have to think too hard or work to uncover the truth. You don’t have to plow though any real investigative reporting or read anything that isn’t on your favorite internet site (one that agrees with you, of course). You can reduce complex issues to slogans.
It is a rainy night here in Boston and I’m feeling pessimistic, but sometimes it is very hard to think we aren’t entering a dark age when along comes this breaking news: Former moderate Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has endorsed the liberal Democratic Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, Joe Sestak. Do you suppose that the moderate Republicans might just save the Democratic party since they don’t seem to have a place in the Republican Party?