In fact, it looks like we have a surplus, though a cursory survey can be misleading.
I was born in the Eisenhower ’50s, matured in the ’60s, stagnated in the ’70s and ’80s, and regressed in the ’90s in anticipation of a millennium surge forward. Throughout these formative years, there was always craziness and moronic behavior on the periphery of our culture and expressed through our politics, but it was contained just beyond the fringes of good taste; the John Birch Society often standing as a symbol of the former and The Three Stooges the latter.
And thus it has ever been.
Two hundred years ago, we had a political party called the Know-Nothings. Founded on the oldest of American ideals, hatred for anything not “American,” the party (officially known as The American Party) rallied around a platform of anti-immigrant (i.e. anti-Irish Catholic) hatred and moronic posturing. The party had grown out of a plethora of secret societies and when challenged by non-believers early-on they were often heard to exclaim Sgt. Schultz-style, “I know nothing.”
Eventually they extended their franchise to include opposing freedom for slaves, which didn’t go over well with their base in the pre-Civil War North and prompted this reprimand from Abraham Lincoln in a letter to a friend five years before being elected president.
I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].
The party suffered its final ignominy when it selected former President Millard Fillmore as its standard bearer in 1856. Back then, there was still a line of taste and impropriety that could not be crossed.
Before Americans knew nothing, they apparently knew too much.
For instance, in 1783, seven years after the Declaration of Independence lulled Americans into thinking they had formed a new nation, the United States was secretly still a British colony and remains so to this day. Nowadays we don’t argue about it much, but in the 18th century it was a hot topic of conversation, along with mysterious plots by Masons and Illuminati to pervert our nation and cast us into the wilderness that lasted well into the 19th century and resonates to this day.
[It was] a libertine, anti-Christian movement, given to the corruption of women, the cultivation of sensual pleasures, and the violation of property rights. Its members had plans for making a tea that caused abortion, a secret substance that blinds or kills when spurted in the face, and a device that sounds like a stench bomb, a method for filling a bedchamber with pestilential vapours.
They were met head on by “[an anti-Masonic] folk movement of considerable power, and the rural enthusiasts who provided its real impetus believed in it wholeheartedly. … It attracted the support of several reputable [supporters] who had only mild sympathy with its fundamental bias, but who as politicians could not afford to ignore it.”
Hofstadter thinks it’s all about paranoia and peppers the historical record with tales of plots by Jesuits, international bankers and munitions makers before hurtling into the 20th century where the contemporary right-wing holds court. But when he arrives he finds one serious distinction: these folks, unlike their heirs who were defending their way of life, are fighting to reclaim an America that is by and large gone.
And now they want their country back.
I take it as an article of faith that we are talking about crazy morons. Wrong-thinking folks driven to distraction by the unsettling vicissitudes of life. And I don’t mean that disparagingly. I believe in the big tent. The melting pot. And the God-given right to make a horse’s ass of yourself in public. I also believe that you can find crazy morons on the political left and right, but since there is no left left in this country, there are markedly fewer of a pinkoish hue.
Well, we’ve got the Internet-driven, 24-hour news cycle. A heavy-duty economic downturn that is eviscerating the middle-class. A wave of immigration. More money awash in politics than ever before. A calcified legislature. Lousier schools. An aging national infrastructure. A corrupted financial system. A wavering sense of confidence.
Though not inconsequential, does any or all of that explain how a single macaca moment could derail a popular senator’s slam dunk re-election bid just four years ago yet far more antagonistic, nee, crazy and moronic behavior, barely survives a single news cycle?
In 2006, when conservative Sen. George Allen, R-VA, referred to a volunteer for his Democratic opponent who is of Indian descent as macaca, it became the dominant subject for the next three months of the campaign. A double-digit lead became a loss.
Though the word has multiple meanings and the candidate denied it, many thought he was using macaca as a monkey reference. In some European cultures, macaca is considered a racial slur against African immigrants. Maybe here, too.
You’ve got to be crazy to think you can toss around a racial slur in public, deny you meant it as a slur and think you can carry on as if nothing happened. Or a moron.
But in this campaign, mainstream candidates:
- cop to witchcraft, but not masturbation;
- denounce the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act;
- tell pissed-off Hispanic audiences they look kinda Asian;
- muse that Obama may be a Muslim;
- mount the third rail of politics by calling for privatization of Social Security;
- suggest the President isn’t a U.S. citizen;
- email bestiality porn to friends;
- admit to having children outside their marriage;
- smirk at the suggestion that separation of church and state is derived from the First Amendment;
- claim that “America is now a socialist economy”;
- oppose the minimum wage law and then apologize for the stand;
- compare their opponents to Nazis;
- admit they have prayed to Aqua Buddha;
- belie their femininity by kicking a guy in the junk on TV;
- defend BP during the Gulf oil spill;
- tell their opponent “to put his man pants on”;
- ask for votes because, unlike the female opponent, “I do not wear high heels”;
- denounce “Tea Party dumbasses,” despite heavy Tea Party support;
- claim, then retract, that beheaded bodies had been found in the Arizona desert;
- call for privatizing the Veterans Administration;
- compare homosexuals to alcoholics … or pedophiles;
- and aver that “American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains.”
Boy, that was too easy. Easy for me, and easy for the candidates. Because most of them are gonna be winners on election day.
Crazy moron behavior is all anyone talks about on the airwaves, in newspapers, on the web and at the dinner table (when they aren’t talking about who is winning or losing the horse race). It’s part of the common culture. It’s what we all know about. It’s a hoot and a half.
Slack-jawed commentators and incredulous pundits plow through the day’s news, barely taking a breath between cackles to wonder aloud and in print, “How could these people say that? Do they seriously expect us to believe it. That is truly beyond the pale. It’s not worth a minute of our time.” And then we give it all of our time.
But it’s entertainment and, therefore, inconsequential. It has pushed aside all discussion of real issues, but hasn’t substituted any alternative basis for decision-making. Our national political currency has been reduced to Third World status.
So many macaca moments have devalued the macaca.
So what’s a voter to do when he’s got no facts and too much fun?
Apparently you go with the gut. Michael Schudson, after studying our long history of political ignorance, concludes that, “People may be able to vote intelligently with very little information.” They grab the party affiliation and a general sense of who the candidates are and punch the chads.
That approach apparently served us well for the first 100 years of our nation’s history. “The Founding Fathers were certainly more concerned about instilling moral virtues than disseminating information about candidates and issues,” according to Schudson.
For years, nearly twice as many people voted at election time than now.
There is no doubt that parades, free whiskey, free-floating money, patronage jobs, and the pleasures of fraternity all played a big part in the political enthusiasm of ordinary Americans.
But then petulant Progressives and ill-tempered Mugwumps, “who recoiled from the spectacle of powerful political parties using government as a job bank for their friends and a cornucopia of contracts for their relatives,” spoiled the party.
The reformers “enshrined the informed citizen as the foundation of democracy.” Ballots were redesigned to include all the candidates; voting was made secret; pamphleteers replaced parades; public education spread; newspapers stopped being house organs for political parties.
And voting dropped off precipitously.
So now we are faced with a horrible dilemma. Though we have managed to bring back the spectacle of political corruption, propel extravagant pageants and parades across the media landscape, and restore the crazy moron to his rightful place in America, we seem to lack the party spirit that once brought us all together at the voting booth.
Former Sen. George Allen has apparently detected the change and from all reports will be bringing his special sensitivity, insight and leadership to the political field when he runs for Senate again in 2012. He probably still thinks he has a shot at becoming president.
But we all know what a crazy moron he is.