David Brooks: The Presidency Wars





David Brooks, writing in the NYT (Sept. 30, 2003):

ave you noticed that we've moved from the age of the culture wars to the age of the presidency wars? Have you noticed that the furious arguments we used to have about cultural and social issues have been displaced by furious arguments about the current occupant of the Oval Office?

During the 1980's, when the culture wars were going full bore, the Moral Majority clashed with the People for the American Way. Allan Bloom published "The Closing of the American Mind" and liberals and conservatives argued over the 1960's.

Those arguments have died down, and now the best-sellers lists are dotted with screeds against the president and his supporters. A cascade of Clinton-bashing books hit the lists in the 1990's, and now in the Bush years we've got "Shrub," "Stupid White Men" and "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them."

The culture warriors were passionate about abortion, feminism or prayer in schools. But with the presidency warrior, political disagreement, cultural resentment and personal antipathy blend to create a vitriol that is at once a descendant of the old conflicts, but also different.

"I hate President George W. Bush," Jonathan Chait writes in a candid piece in The New Republic. "He reminds me of a certain type I knew in high school — the kid who was given a fancy sports car for his sixteenth birthday and believed that he had somehow earned it. I hate the way he walks. . . . I hate the way he talks. . . . I suspect that, if I got to know him personally, I would hate him even more."...

To the warrior, politics is no longer a clash of value systems, each of which is in some way valid. It's not a competition between basically well-intentioned people who see the world differently. It's not even a conflict of interests. Instead, it's the Florida post-election fight over and over, a brutal struggle for office in which each side believes the other is behaving despicably. The culture wars produced some intellectually serious books because there were principles involved. The presidency wars produce mostly terrible ones because the hatreds have left the animating ideas far behind and now romp about on their own.

The warriors have one other feature: ignorance. They have as much firsthand knowledge of their enemies as members of the K.K.K. had of the N.A.A.C.P. In fact, most people in the last two administrations were well-intentioned patriots doing the best they could. The core threat to democracy is not in the White House, it's the haters themselves.


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