Public Nuisances

Posted: May 24, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- My sardonic friend, Robert H. Bork, has filed an astounding observation. On the op-ed page of the venerable Washington Post, he notes that the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 represented a "seismic shift" in the "American political culture." Yes, the political and cultural eruption that first became a national phenomenon in 1964 with the candidacy of Barry Goldwater came to govern the country in 1980. The governance continued for 12 years. On the local level it, brought the Republican party back from the doldrums of the 1950s and 1960s. Then in 1992 Bill Clinton was elected, and what happened? The electorate continued to put Republicans in charge of governor's mansions, state legislatures and both houses of the United States Congress. Two-party politics came to characterize the Republic, wherever the voters' voice was heard. Democracy triumphed. A healthy political dialogue was guaranteed. Abroad, communism disappeared as a menace to world peace and, incidentally, to the rights of workers. Socialism fell out of fashion. At home, diverse policies were adopted, diminishing the role of what was once called "collectivism." Most Democrats and Republicans moved the country toward free trade, limited government, law and order, and other conservative values, while maintaining concern for the environment, minority rights and other liberal values. At some point, the president of the United States got entangled in one of his own legal enthusiasms, sexual harassment law. Asked the kind of questions sexual harassment law requires that an alleged sexual harasser answer, the president lied under oath and obstructed justice. He was impeached, but the country moved on. An heir to Ronald Reagan's politics was elected in 2000. Studies of the 2000 vote by media and other monitors have reviewed the vote, and the consensus is that George W. Bush won. This is democratic government as it is expected to be practiced. Yet something odd crept into the American political discourse. Such terms as "far right" and "extreme right" began to be applied to Ronald Reagan's heirs. Throughout American history, those terms denoted racists, fascists and other assorted anti-democratic authoritarians. They are now regularly being applied to people who for 20 or more years have peacefully governed and otherwise conducted politics in the country. Democrats use the terms regularly and few squawks are heard. Why? Bork provides the answer. "Many liberals," he says, upon being confronted with conservative governance "shifted gears from smug superiority to utter fury. Thinking that conservatives had no moral right to win and govern, liberals began the politics of personal destruction." Is he right? Well, he does bring to mind Daniel Patrick Moynihan's observation some 30 years ago that some liberals believe that conservatives have no place in "the natural order of things." The conservatives' growing popularity with the electorate and effectiveness in government did not change these liberals' minds. They still seem to believe that there is something illegitimate about what is called, in happier times, "the loyal opposition." In fact, Hillary Rodham Clinton referred to conservatives as "conspirators," members of a "vast right-wing conspiracy." Now, Democratic pundits and members of Congress have come to her position. They believe that those who oppose them are conspirators. Evidence to the contrary does not move them. In fact, evidence does not move them. They are embodying what the distinguished liberal historian of a generation ago, Richard Hofstadter, essayed as "the paranoid style of American politics." He associated that paranoid style with the right usually. Obviously, it has now been picked up by the left. Hofstadter would be amazed. He also wrote authoritatively about anti-intellectualism in America. In a particularly hefty essay, "The Intellectual: Alienation and Conformity," he associated anti-intellectualism with the right and the philistine center of American life. He feared that "conformity" to anti-intellectualism would become more intense in America. "It is possible," Hofstadter wrote, "that under modern conditions the avenues of choice are being closed, and that the culture of the future will be dominated by single-minded men of one persuasion or another." That is about the way that today's liberals would like to see things go, with theirs being the dominant persuasion. Hofstadter, the American historian who believed in America, hoped "variety" would triumph. "So far," he wrote, "as the weight of one's will is thrown onto the scales of history, one lives in the belief that it (conformity to one persuasion) is not to be so." Bork has thrown his weight onto the scale. Other conservatives have followed. The conformity today's liberals seem to want and liberals like Hofstadter disdained will not last.