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Political thuggery in vogue

Published October 31, 2004

If George Bush wins the presidential election, Americans can mark it down as a triumph of thug politics. If John Kerry wins, as I believe he will, that conversely will not mean that thug politics will be finished as the dominant style of modern American presidential campaigns.

What is political thuggery as it has been practiced throughout the 2004 campaign? How does it differ from the slanders of 18th and 19th century campaigns, the strong-arm bossism of 50 years ago in Chicago and New York, or the more recent demagoguery Southern and Western politicians used to incite racial hatred and paranoia about Big Government?

By thug politics, I mean the tireless repetition of misleading "facts" designed to depict an opponent as personally despicable and, in regard to governance, dangerous to the physical and spiritual life of the nation.

Certainly, campaigning of this rough sort has a root system that reaches back to earlier outbreaks of ignorance, nativism and intolerance in American politics. But starting with the Reagan campaign of 1980, thug politics has developed in such a way as to deserve classification as the distinctive style of an era.

Just as the Progressive Era followed the Gilded Age, we can now say that the New Politics birthed in the '60s, which stressed altruism and good government, has been displaced by an intellectual crudeness that was inherent in the modern American conservatism that began slouching toward Washington after the Republican convention in San Francisco in 1964.

Even if Kerry wins, this brutish political era will continue, in part because many Democratic political professionals have become would-be imitators eager to reassert their party's prior title to ruthless, "hardball" politics. More important in a causative sense, however, are deeper sociological factors.

For one, the United States is in the throes of one of its periodic religious "awakenings."

For another, we have seen the emergence of a new quasi-journalism driven by technology and marked by a politically driven shift in the nature of "facts."

Also, the GOP has shown that it knows how to trump economic self-interest and socioeconomic class as prime determinants of party affiliation.

Finally, the "anything-to-win" mentality, while always a feature of hard-fought democratic elections, has been perfected by the Bush family into a monumentally amoral strategic doctrine.

I have no argument with the term "Culture Wars" as a catch-all term for these developments. But constant use of the jargon term implies that we are in the midst of some transient contest between the Wal-Mart Baptists and the Academic Secularists. That inhibits analysis of a trend-setting change of historic importance in the nation.

Let's review some of the points cited above:

* RELIGION: Few cycles are more prominent in colonial and postrevolutionary history than that of frenzied national revivals. But in the past, the contending parties - the Presbyterians, Calvinists, Anglicans and Catholics of colonial times - eventually suppressed their legalistic, rulemaking impulses in favor of securing spiritual space.

But today, the divisions and the tolerance of a new religious monolith, "God's People," as they call themselves, have broken down. With the succession of born-again or ostentatiously religious presidents - Carter, Reagan, Clinton, the younger Bush - a united American laity can reach a goal that eluded them as denominational separatists. That goal is the legislation of social, education, sexual and medical standards that reflect theologically based cultural norms.

* JOURNALISM: Facts may not be entirely dead as shaping forces in American public life, but the vital signs are not good. Students of the press have tended to focus on two villains - corporate ownership of newspaper chains and the speed of the broadcast, cable and digital news cycle. But the journalistic taste buds of the nation are numbed for more complex reasons.

The most dangerous trait of the Internet is not merely its speed, but its creation of demand and credulity for unverified information. Perhaps for the first time since invention of the printing press, a new information technology has become more efficient at spreading disinformation than knowledge.

Propaganda, speculation and rumor once traveled in compartments of the print and broadcast world. Now all move with viral speed through all venues of communication. The decline of critical powers among the generation conditioned by this information environment has been viral, as well.

In another amazing shift, a foreigner, Rupert Murdoch, and his handpicked chairman of Fox News, the campaign strategist Roger Ailes, have become the most important standard setters in the nation's political journalism.

In its most triumphant period, the American press invented the postwar model of journalism that sought to be both fair and analytical and that was admired globally throughout the last half of the 20th century. Fox - and its enablers on the comedy news shows and among neoconservative intellectuals - have destroyed public trust in that traditional model.

Murdoch is open about his goal. He wants the same prize he got in Britain for facilitating Margaret Thatcher's election - a deregulated broadcast environment. Any thought that a second Bush administration or Michael Powell's FCC is going to deny his ambition is delusional.

* THE BUSHES: My generation of political reporters bear some responsibility for this ethically bankrupt dynasty. We helped glorify big-city rogues like Richard Daley and urban icons like Rudy Giuliani as colorful character actors in the drama of democracy.

We treated George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, even Goldwater and Reagan as comic regional curiosities. We did not predict that their operatives - think of Lee Atwater as Exhibit A - would make their DNA the dominant strain in America's political gene pool.

Another reason that America's voters and journalists were lulled into underestimating the Bush threat was that it came from an unexpected source. We expected venality from buccaneers like the Kennedys or lurkers from the fringe like Nixon. Who could have guessed that such a proud, powerful know-nothing as George W. Bush would be a scion of the great Industrial Age fortunes and a graduate of our second oldest university?

Am I overestimating the process of debasement we've seen in 2004? I hope so, but look at the most salient trends of this campaign. Bush campaign surrogates falsely attack Kerry's patriotism and then the president accuses him of "dividing the country" when he defends himself.

Kerry points out Bush's failure to secure Iraqi explosives and Cheney snarls that Kerry is trying to "scare the American people." Thousands of Americans are denied flu vaccine because of bumbling in the Bush Cabinet, and Bush warns that Kerry will destroy our health delivery system. Bush pledges to end feuding in Washington, and the capital is frozen in a partisan gridlock that neither Reagan nor Tip O'Neill could have imagined.

The Bush-Cheney-Rove technique of treating any reasoned response as an opponent's attempt to divide America has proven so effective that momentous issues - the dismantling of federal environmental enforcement, Halliburton's war profiteering, the Vietnam-like disenchantment of professional military officers - are inadequately addressed on the stump or in campaign coverage.

Will a Kerry victory bring the promised end to the much-discussed division among the American electorate? Just last week I heard Sen. John Edwards promise that it would if he and Kerry can do the job. I'm not sure that will happen with the best of wills. For even if the Bush family dynasty gets chopped off at this last, best chance, the underlying dynamics that created this historical moment - religion run amok, informational decay in the mass media and in the appetites of its audience, a campaign environment of insulting irrationality - will still be in place.

Howell Raines is the former executive editor of the New York Times and former political editor of the St. Petersburg Times.

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