A few weeks ago (on Sept. 27) I suggested that Bill Clinton and Al Gore have brought a new kind of cynicism and dishonesty to American politics. Several days later (on Sept. 30), I considered why a new form of cynicism and dishonesty might surface now, and tried to point to parallels between “post-modern” thought and the way Clinton and Gore treat issues. Tonight I’m going to compound the mischief by asking why these tendencies have surfaced primarily in the Democratic, rather than the Republican, party. Here are four possible explanations:
1. Necessity is the mother of invention. After 1964 and before 1992, the Democrats lost five of six presidential elections including three landslides. The Democrats were consistently hammered on the issues and “liberal” became a bad word. The party’s options were to change its core beliefs or pose as something it is not. Opting largely for the latter approach, it needed and found leaders who were particularly skillful in the art of deception. Note that the closest thing to a precursor of Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, emerged as the Republican standard bearer after a period of more than thirty years in which Republicans managed to elect only one president, an essentially apolitical war hero.
2. The Democrats are much more closely linked with academia, home of the intellectual trends that may be associated with the Clinton-Gore phenomenon. Despite the truth of this statement, I am not convinced that it provides a substantial part of the explanation I’m looking for. Clinton and Gore came up with their approach without the direct assistance of the academy. They probably “breathed the air” of post-modernism as students, but so did many Republican politicians.
3. The media lets them get away with it. Any major Republican politician with a record of mendacity remotely comparable to Clinton’s or Gore’s would have faced a media outcry far more debilitating than the one those two faced. Under this account, Republican politicians are not more honest because they are inherently more virtuous, but because prudence demands it.
4. Their constituencies let them get away with it. This is my favorite explanation. The Democratic party contains at least two core constituencies — African-Americans and feminists — who tend to view rules as instruments of their oppression and barriers to their advancement, and who therefore are less respectful than others of rules. We see this in civil rights litgation where “neutral rules with a disparate impact on African-Americans” (commonly known as tests and educational requirements) are constantly challenged as “discriminatory.” We see it in the case for affirmative action, which demands that objective qualifications for selection be ignored to the extent that they interfere with desired outcomes. We see it in the notoriously shoddy “feminist scholarship” that has been exposed by Christina Hoff Sommers and others. The common thread here is something pretty close to cheating, which of course is a good one-word description of what Clinton and Gore are all about. No wonder that these core groups, and the sophisticates who believe that rules exist only to be deconstructed, tend to admire Clinton’s intellectual gyrations and to tolerate Gore’s less supple efforts.
By contrast, the Republican party is a “values” party, a party of church goers. While such folk can be hypocrites in individual cases (as Hollywood endlessly reminds us), collectively the Republican constituencies are far less likely to tolerate cheating and blatant dishonesty in their leaders. This, more than a lack of fortitude, may be why a Gingrich, a Livingston, and even a Nixon will step aside, whereas a Clinton will “hang tough,” always with one more lie to tell.
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