There is an element of ahistoricism in the idea that American politics is uniquely “broken” today. The forward-looking essence to the American spirit discourages the near-obsessive focus on past slights and failures that can hobble a culture. However, it also encourages a sense that what is striking or disturbing is also a novelty, when quite often it is not.
The period in our history in which politics was reflective, courteous and nuanced is elusive. Congressmen like Daniel Webster, enshrined as a bewhiskered orator in portraits, was nakedly on the take. The reason most of us have trouble naming the Presidents between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln is that they were mostly compromise candidates chosen to mind the store as inoffensively as possible, not leaders or innovators.
For most of the twentieth century, bigoted Southern senators essentially ran the country from their committee posts (Mississippi’s James Vardaman: “If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched”). Few up to this point thought of our government as especially gifted at getting serious things done. And when this changed amidst Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, his efforts were as lustily despised by many as Barack Obama’s, complete with deathless rumors that he was secretly Jewish.
The old days live largely as paintings and photos full of people in formal dress and writings cast in impersonal prose. We can’t hear the sneers or watch the stasis of bygone Congressional debates. We can’t watch a living, breathing blank slate like Millard Fillmore and take in the cynicism of those who elected him. And in any case, we are not ones for looking back: the musical 1776, the History Channel, Ken Burns – these are dessert for most of us, not mother’s milk.
Veteran Congress members ruefully recall when there was more cooperation across the aisle. This was, however, an unusual and brief interregnum in the wake of the sixties, when Lyndon Johnson forged such cooperation by the force of his will to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. As shortly before this as the post-war forties, a political film like State of the Nation depicts a norm familiar to us, where Democrats and Republicans treating one another as practically different species.
What animates those appalled at our current situation is the escalation of polarization. We are apparently living in echo chambers of like-minded people, hewing to publications and websites confirming our biases, and eternally angry. It is unclear that this was not true during the Nixon and Reagan Administrations either, but to the extent that the national conversation seems uniquely coarse and closed-minded now, the reason is technology.
Language exists in two forms in modern civilizations: speech and writing. Writing is produced and received more slowly and deliberately than speech. It encourages reflection, structured argument, and objectivity. It is, compared to speech, cool.
Writing once mediated between people in politics more than it does today. Even speeches were couched in writing-style prose, as most Americans were expected to engage political speeches on the page – technology didn’t allow all Americans to see politicians speaking live at the press of a button. Without amplification, public language had to be more careful and explicit – one could not stand before a crowd and “just talk.” Public language had to be like the public dress of the period: effortful. Even Millard Fillmore’s inaugural address reads like Virgil.
It is no accident that the shrillness of political conversation has increased just as broadband and YouTube have become staples of American life. The internet brings us back to the linguistic culture our species arose in – all about speech: live, emotional, unreflective, and punchy. One no longer needs to read, and because it has always been an artificial activity that a great many do not genuinely enjoy for long, a call to the oral is happily heeded by millions.
Hence the slogan trumps the argument; anger, often of hazy source but ever cathartic (“I want my country back”) takes fire – with all of this reinforced by the synergy of on line “communities” stoking up a passion and scale that snail mail circulars could never create.
The reason that in the old days no political candidate taken seriously tossed off the likes of “Don’t retreat, reload” as a prime calling card was that America was still a culture of formal rhetoric, descendant from a tradition that began with the carefully honed oratorical skills of Ancient Greeks. With broadband and YouTube, the only question is why a culture of written-style language would persist.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at City Journal and The New Republic and is a lecturer at Columbia University. His latest book is Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: Untold Stories in the History of English.