The Irish poet William Butler Yeats, a year after World War I, wrote “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Since the 2016 election those words from “The Second Coming” have become clichés. The recent outbreak of political violence show they may also be prophetic.
Many pundits and talking heads ‒ yelling heads in reality ‒ have blamed President Trump for the outbreak of political violence. That is too simplistic. It also is a commentary on the sorry state of our politics and discourse. Politics now is defined by what you are against and who you hate. There are myriad examples: Standing in opposition to any policy proposal from the other side of the aisle; vowing to resist elected officials; calling people from another country who seek a better life criminals and rapists; saying that one-third of the electorate are deplorable racists, sexists and homophobes; contending that anyone who opposes you is part of a vast conspiracy or an enemy of the state; and, claiming that a single appointee threatens western civilization as we know it — ad nauseam, ad extremum.
The politics of hate and disdain leads to scapegoating, which leads to demonizing your opponent. Once you believe that your opponent is the devil incarnate it is a logical leap to think that you can use any means to stop them. Be that harassing your opponents in public, threatening their lives in emails or in person, murdering them with your car while they peaceable protest; shooting them at a baseball practice; sending them pipe bombs in the mail; or, massacring them while they pray.
All this is not new. American politics always has been a blood sport. Since 1800, politicians have demonized their opponents. John Adams said Thomas Jefferson supported a violent revolution; James Blaine raised the issue of Grover Cleveland fathering a child out of wedlock. On occasion, actual blood was spilled.
Joanna Freeman’s new book, “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War,” shows that physical attacks on the floors of the House and Senate were common. It should be required reading for all politicians and people involved in the political process.
What has changed is how wide-spread the viciousness has become. There are many reasons for this. First is the media, specifically the every-second, every-minute news programs. Fox News Channel, MSBNC, One America News appeal to narrow segments of the populace, and are feedback loops that appeal to the political extremes. Second is the Internet, especially Facebook, Tweeter, and the numerous hyper-partisan and hate-filled websites. As with cable news, people only read things that reinforce their beliefs and outlooks. Their focus narrows. They don’t consider other points of view and reject them out of hand. (We’ve written about this before).
Elections also are decided on the margins. Candidates must find a way to ensure their supporters go to the polls. Emotions, especially negative ones, are great motivators. Politicians, once they are elected, generally only are concerned with re-elections. They play to their bases and nothing gets done.
The budget is a prime example. Congress’ main job is to pass a budget (it is the first power listed in the Constitution). Since 1996, less than half the time Congress has failed to do that basic job.
Things were different as late as 1997. Democratic and Republican staffers acted like the sheepdog and the wolf in the old Looney Tunes cartoon: they would beat each other up during the day and go out for drinks together in the evening. Not today. Some politicians understand the new dynamic and work to change it. That is why the late John McCain and Sen. Ben Sasse were and are popular among their colleagues, why Gov. John Kasich and even Vice President Biden are quietly respected. All tried to restore a modicum of sanity and civility to politics. They tried to reach bipartisan consensus, fought for their beliefs, but rarely personally opposed their opponents. A partial solution to this political battlefield (sometimes a literal battlefield) may be to follow their examples.
W.H. Auden also had some advice. A generation after Yeats wrote his epic, Auden wrote the following in “September 1, 1939” ‒ a poem titled in reference to the day that the Second World War started: “All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie, / The romantic lie in the brain / Of the sensual man-in-the-street / And the lie of Authority / Whose buildings grope the sky: / There is no such thing as the State / And no one exists alone; /Hunger allows no choice / To the citizen or the police; / We must love one another or die.”
The question is whether we will listen to the poets.