Somewhere I have read a commentator remark on how tragic or pathetic it was that during the Clinton years, while Islamic terrorist groups were busy developing their capacity to attack the United States, American society was preoccupied with Monica Lewinsky. Depending on your political allegiances you could blame either the shallow vindictiveness of the right wing or the sleaziness of the president and his supporters; but since 9/11 it can hardly be contested that we must have been doing something seriously wrong.
I was distant from American politics during the 1990s; I lived abroad during part that era and was otherwise preoccupied with different things. (I still can’t bring myself to care terribly much about many of the details of American electoral politics.) However, the stunning and – to a conservative – devastating developments of this past decade obviously have proceeded directly from the events of the 1990s, so it is worthwhile to revisit that time to see what we can see.
I have been reading The Clinton Wars by Sidney Blumenthal (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), a liberal journalist who became an important senior adviser to the Clinton administration. My hope was to learn more about U.S. involvement in the Bosnian War, but the main focus of the book is on the various scandals in which Clinton and his administration were implicated. Blumenthal is a serious Clinton partisan – it seems neither Bill nor Hillary can do wrong in his eyes, and apparently his support of Hillary against Obama in 2008 cost him a job in the Obama administration. As someone who has never had the least inclination to like Clinton, it is interesting to see how he appears to his admirers. His talent and energy are undeniable, and he made at least superficial attempts to “moderate” the Democratic program in hopes that the majority of Americans, along with liberal Republicans, would support him. That Clinton was nevertheless attacked and derided by Republicans and the conservative media was, to Blumenthal, proof of their essential irrationality and ill will.
Blumenthal, who gave Hillary Clinton the term “vast right-wing conspiracy” to describe “the alliance of conservative media, think tanks, and political operatives that sought to destroy the Clinton White House” (see here) really does see “the right” as the primary obstacle to progress in politics – a fundamentally irrational, malicious force in American society.
Clinton believed he could move his agenda reasonably, making his case, fighting his battles, and pushing extremists to the fringes, where they belonged. But the irrational element in politics isn’t a virus isolated in extremism. Uncontrollable emotional passion in politics has roots in a thousand sources deep in the social soil. It can be located in the loss of power, in frustration at trying to grasp it, or just in the slightest proximity to power; in status anxiety, a moment of unsteady attention, or economic insecurity; in the desire for fame, influence, wealth, or ratings. These combustible feelings can never be quite gratified – because there is an insistent pressure for more, an ever-nagging sensation that whatever has been gained is never enough, and a dread that a speck of reflected glory can be capriciously lost in a twinkling.
The intensity of reaction, defying logic and reason, acquires its own logic. Rage and hatred swiftly develop images that masquerade as ideas, and the heightened imagination can make the figures on the cave wall appear to be a higher truth. The stronger the feeling, the more ingenuous it feels. Once in its grip, a person can make any remark or incident fit the mesmerizing pattern and confirm its reality. And the more a figure of hate tries to alter that reality to escape from the picture, the more he or she (Bill or Hillary) is thrust back into the stereotype…. (48)
I’ll limit my remarks to just a couple for now. First, Blumenthal’s view of the nature of “the right” is shared by many liberals, especially political thinkers and commentators and the more sophisticated of the Democrat voters. Frustrated by the intransigence of nearly half of the American population in their resistance to progressive policies, they try to articulate a psychological or anthropological explanation for the obvious irrationality of this group. They simply cannot accept that many people do understand the aims of progressive policies and reject those aims. Obama, readers will probably recall, has described “the right” in these terms quite frequently.
Second, despite the enormous biases of liberal operatives like Blumenthal, it is not a bad idea to consider how the establishment Right – say, the editors of the Wall Street Journal; Republican leaders; members of think tanks – appear in their eyes. What were they doing in the 1990s? Were they above the shenanigans that drew such contempt for the Clinton administration? That administration no doubt deserved the hounding they received. But what were the Right doing about mass immigration, deindustrialization, and deficit spending – to name a few of the problems that have really caught up with us since then? They had a lot of power to disrupt Democratic ambitions, and it’s good that they did, but it wasn’t enough.
The Republicans appear poised for huge gains in Tuesday’s elections, but until a solid and principled conservative movement has planted its roots at all levels of society, such victories will be fleeting and their benefits capricious.