Fear and Loathing in Our Civic Culture

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a 1971 novel by Hunter S. Thompson narrating a drug-fueled, dystopic experience as a critique of the American dream and the 1960s counter-culture. Thompson attempted to summarize his chaotic view of the zeitgeist:

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

That explanation may, in fact, apply to the current state of the dynamics of the political discourse that finds so many engaged in exchanges among the populace. The tone and tenor of the dialogue that dominates our political discourse, often bitter, has tended to corrupt the very fabric of our civic culture. Cable news pundits prate and tsk-tsk about it. Politicians lament and foment it. Followers and friends on social media anonymously hurl brickbats into cyberspace, sometimes along with conspiracy theories attributing nefarious motives and plots by and against adversaries.

Some commentators attribute fear of becoming a minority voice and vote in the electorate as a motivating factor. The question arises as to why such fear has become so energizing. Every one of us belongs to some minority, whether by political affiliation, race, gender, geographic location (urban, rural), or disability. Do we truly believe an all caps SHOUT on Twitter erases minority status?

Compounding the fear is the character and quality of loathing that often accompanies the dialogue, especially name-calling. Libtard and consuckative are liberally sprinkled in chat rooms and message boards as a tactic of internecine warfare. Loathing has become normal parlance for political parties. Republicans, who now tend to call themselves conservatives, fire volleys at former allies for being RINO or Vichy in attempts to claim being Republican. Democrats, for the most part, have resorted to segregating as progressives versus others within their political wing.

There does not seem to be any concern among these participants with respect to the concerns of Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation about tyranny of the majority. To the contrary, the major political parties tend to regard themselves as a majority. Loathing is often reflected in communications that are across political boundaries and, at other times, intragroup, fired among nominal members of the same tribe.

Theorists and even participants attribute this phenomenon to the First Amendment’s free speech principle. This approach ignores that the Founding Fathers had incorporated structural features into the Constitution (such as the Electoral College) to mitigate against rule by mob or impassioned masses seeking to exercise majority authority over a more passive populace. For this reason, as tasteless as it may be, the pejorative tone of the dialogue in the contemporary politisphere may serve as a healthy expiation of pent-up frustrations. Thus these same observers conclude the pesky First Amendment with its freedom of speech is at once the culprit and the remedy.

The colonial era that spawned the United States was birthed as the result of a rebellion and experienced other instances of violent civil unrest (Shays’ Rebellion 1786-87 and the Whiskey Rebellion 1791-94). A factor in the War of 1812 with England was the impressment of seamen into the British Navy. The former colonial power even offered freedom and relocation to Black slaves in return for military service. In 1831 Nat Turner’s slave revolt in Virginia frightened the new states with anxious fears over warfare with the slave population.

In Federalist Papers No. 10, James Madison clearly delineated the purpose of a decentralized government organization. This would make it “more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried.” Madison, along with his founding brethren, were of the opinion that wealth inequality among the populace sustained a primary motive for civil unrest: “The most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.” This twin dynamic has currency in contemporary political discourse. On another level, it may be said that the structural disincentives in the Constitution function as anti-democratic to the extent that they, at the same time, also encourage the very factiousness they were intended to mitigate.

Since colonial times, the nation’s civic culture has survived even through a civil war and disruptive economic distortions. . . . The current political dialogue may have unpleasant and sometimes uncivil qualities but its ultimate effects upon the civic culture may not be permanent or even destructive.

Since colonial times, the nation’s civic culture has survived even through a civil war and disruptive economic distortions. The structural devices introduced by the Founding Fathers have not made any real difference with respect to the purpose for which they were intended except to function as a drag on democratic progress. Expanding the voting franchise to Blacks and women and youth along with direct election of senators, if anything, has only exaggerated the deficiencies of the Electoral College and the federal system.

The current political dialogue may have unpleasant and sometimes uncivil qualities but its ultimate effects upon the civic culture may not be permanent or even destructive. It is certainly distracting and often difficult to listen to. We may simply have to be patient.

 

 



Categories: FREE SPEECH, Issues, Local, National, politics

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