History, legitimacy and reason

For those who read my column on rage in US politics, and for others as well, no doubt, here is an interesting article by Lou Cannon (noted biographer of Ronald Reagan, among other distinctions) on "the once and constant opposition".

My foray in the archives casts doubt on two assertions that have been made so often they seem as if they have the force of fact. The first is that Obama faces slurs and slanders of unprecedented magnitude. This is sometimes been attributed to racism but more often to the coarsening of the public dialogue arising from the decline of newspapers and the rise of talk radio, 24-7 cable news, and an Internet that puts legions of amateur bloggers on equal footing with professional journalists and historians.

The second assertion is that conservatives and/or Republicans are out of ideas and time, a contention made provocatively by Sam Tanenhaus in his new book, "The Death of Conservatism." "Today's conservatives resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology," Tanenhaus writes.
I'll come back to Sam Tanenhaus and his fine new book another time, but for the moment let me respond to the first assertion, which goes to the issues raised in my column. Yes, I agree, slurs and slanders and attacks on a politician's legitimacy are hardly unprecedented in US politics. But does this mean that the syndrome I'm complaining about is just business as usual, no cause for alarm? I don't think so. The usual historical examples are hardly reassuring. Lincoln's legitimacy was furiously attacked--and (as Cannon notes) the divisions of his time literally tore the country in two. FDR's legitimacy was furiously attacked, and (you could argue) the outcome was uncertain until global war restored the country's sense of unity and purpose. If US politics is again as divisive and unreasoning as it was in Lincoln's and FDR's times, the country has something to worry about.

By the way, I have had emails taking issue with part of my column for "equating" views of unequal merit. For instance, one correspondent wrote:
[Y]ou do a disservice to your readers when you equate right-wing birthers questioning whether Mr Obama was born in the US and leftwing counterparts who argue that George W. Bush stole the 2000 election.  There is absolutely no evidence that Mr. Obama was born anywhere outside Hawaii, whereas there are serious grounds to question the legitimacy of the outcome of the 2000 election.  At least four Supreme Court judges would agree.  Furthermore comparing conservative claims that Congress' (not Mr. Obama's) healthcare plan is a plot to turn the US socialist to former president Jimmy Carter's (impolitic) suggestion that much of the opposition to Mr. Obama is mere racism is also misguided.  Carter clarified his (arguably misinterpreted) remarks saying that some attacks on President Obama were tinged with racism.  Few Republicans have backpedalled on claims of a socialist plot.
I take the point (though I think this way of putting it is pretty generous to Jimmy Carter). I wasn't trying to equate these views, or compare their merits, only to give examples from each side of attacks that question not the judgment but the legitimacy of the other. Charges of that kind, which seem to be becoming the standard line of attack, are uniquely toxic. They are saying, in effect, that democracy itself has broken down. Flawed as the Supreme Court's decision on the 2000 election may have been--and for what it's worth I thought it was a mistake--its ruling should have settled the matter. The fact that there were dissenting judges--when are there not dissenting judges?--does not make their judgment half-binding. To persist in believing and saying, as many Democrats did, that George Bush was an illegitimate president, was anti-constitutional and anti-democratic. Those are bad habits to pick up.