Twice in my life I have been genuinely disillusioned by politics. I’ve been disappointed by politics more times than I care to count. For a progressive in a reactionary age, political disappointment becomes so omnipresent as to lose most of its intensity. Only twice, though, have political developments truly upended previously-held assumptions and revealed intense, unexpected ugliness and dysfunction.
9/11 doesn’t make the cut. It was, to be sure, a horrifying psychic punch to the jaw, but I was a pretty aware sixteen-year-old. I knew there was violence and terrorism in the world, had vaguely heard of al-Qaeda, and had read that Tom Clancy book where the guy flies a jumbo jet into Capitol Hill. I also wasn’t personally acquainted with any of the victims. So 9/11 didn’t really shatter any dearly-held preconceptions. Likewise with the run-up to the Iraq war. My still-teen-aged self didn’t think invading Iraq was a particularly good idea, and could recognize some of the “selling” of that war as overblown fear-mongering. But perhaps because I had a high school teacher who interpreted all of modern history through the lens of Machiavelli’s The Prince, or because I knew about Vietnam and remembered Monica Lewinsky, I wasn’t blown away by the notion that leaders would engage in a bit of fact-massaging in service to their own interests.
No, my first moment of disillusionment came during the summer of 2003, when it became clear that 1) Saddam Hussein had no WMD program to speak of, and 2) the Bush Administration would survive this revelation. My 2002-2003 self, cynically confident that institutional incentives would discipline the mendacious tendencies of elected officials, had assumed that Bush et al. actually had “slam dunk” evidence of Saddam’s weapons programs. I didn’t assume this because I thought they were honorable people incapable of misleading the public. I assumed it because they were willing to launch a massive, highly controversial war based on assertions about Iraqi weapons. Should those assertions prove false, I smugly believed, the indignant revulsion erupting from the American populace would be so intense as to render Watergate a sideshow in the history of executive malfeasance. There would be impeachment. There would be criminal charges.
Maybe a lynching or two for good measure.* The righteous fury of a people whose sons and daughters had been sent to die over a fairy tale would, at the very least, leave a battered, discredited shell of an administration limping toward the merciful euthanasia of the 2004 elections.
Instead, in a PR pivot that I hope is studied by every communications major in this country, administration elites and media allies began rhetorically broadening the objectives, scope and nature of the U.S. Iraq mission such that, by the time it was clear no weapons existed, the weapons didn’t matter that much. Opinions on the war had become so tribal that to point out the obvious – this war was founded on a deliberate lie – became a matter of shrill partisanship treated as distasteful by media elites. Far from unified revulsion, outrage over the invasion was relegated to the status of left-wing talking (shouting) point. George Bush was reelected. Only Scooter Libby pulled a jail sentence. And he didn’t serve it.
The second shattering of rose-colored glasses came more recently, in the late summer of 2010. I’d heard some news reports about plans to build Cordoba House, an Islamic community center, in lower Manhattan. I’d also heard about some isolated protests over the plans. Par for the course, I figured. After all there are always a few wingnuts so freaked out by the word “Allah” that they’ll protest anything Muslim; but, in the land of religious liberty this “controversy” wouldn’t move beyond the fringe, right? Sadly, wrong. At the height of the dispute, substantial majorities of Americans opposed the “ground zero mosque,” and very significant minorities believed its construction ought not be legally permitted.
I’m not naive about prejudice and bigotry. I didn’t think Obama’s election signaled a “post-racial” America. I’ve never considered Americans immune to inter-religious animosity. I must admit, though, I was shocked at the extent to which outright Islamophobia had been rendered acceptable in mainstream discourse, and how much popular support it enjoyed. One of the few heartening actions the Bush Administration took after 9/11 was to emphasize Islam as a religion of humanity and peace, rather than overtly fan the flames of ethnocultural conflict. And, indeed, there’s evidence that Bush’s early statements had a salutary effect on popular opinion, especially on the right. After nearly ten years of war, coupled with a gradual loosening of self-imposed constraints on elite rhetoric, those effects had evidently been superseded. In a country where religious pluralism is, literally, a foundational value, enshrined in the Constitution and deeply rooted in national history and mythology, more than half the population felt the construction of a house of worship to be an insulting affront.
I’ve thought a lot about both of these episodes lately, because they speak to how extraordinarily susceptible the public can be to elite discourse, even when such discourse contradicts deeply-held beliefs or observable reality. Previously-unthinkable ideas now become acceptable to whisper, now become reasonable to say, now become imperative to shout. The capacity of free and uncensored media environments to literally erase or reconfigure recent history, reshape the bounds of acceptable thought and serve as unwitting (or witting) accomplices to feedback loops of tribal psychology is really quite impressive. It also leads one to wonder what might have happened had elite incentives been just a bit different. What if most Democratic elected officials had voted against the Iraq War, thus enabling them to build a robust and coherent narrative against executive lies without self-incriminating? What if the Republican attack strategy against Obama hadn’t banked so hard on “othering” him that “secret Muslim” became a barely-submerged talking point? What if, more broadly, people with a microphone and an audience felt some basic obligation to do more than play on peoples’ fears and tribal impulses?
It would be nice. But I’ve left that illusion behind.
*Meant as ironic hyperbole, but terribly put regardless. Mea culpa.