America also has the most impoverished of politics today, and by that I do mean small.
It's hard to imagine us practicing a political discourse more trivial than the one we do today. It's difficult to imagine a politics less suited to addressing the grave problems facing the country in our time. It's hard to see how our policy-making machinery could be very much more broken than it is, short of the Weimar Republic anyhow (and, some days, it doesn't seem so short of that at all).
It's in this context, especially, that I will miss Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who announced his retirement from the Court this week. Stevens is not just an old-timer, and one of the longest-serving justices on the Court in all of American history, but he is literally and figuratively an anachronism an alien from another time. And, in many ways, it was a substantially better time.
But I often worry that the scariest effect of our times especially for people who have the mixed fortune of being younger than I am is not so much that we have already, or might soon, lose entirely a level of decency in our politics, but far worse still, that we will lose the capacity to imagine decency. Such concerns always bring me back to the beautifully rendered nightmare of Orwell's 1984, where the greatest achievement of the regime was just that its success in stripping the citizenry of the ability to even verbalize alternative visions.
I wonder about that today. For anyone who is, say, forty years old or younger in America quite a large proportion of the population do they even understand that politics doesn't have to practiced in the way it has been since Reagan turned the GOP into a party of thugs, and Clinton led the Democrats into their role as thug-enablers? Do they know that it actually was once different, not so long ago? Can an alternative praxis, which is not even theoretical but quite real in recent history, still be envisioned?
American politics were not perfect before this revolution, let's be clear. Both Nixon and McCarthy, for example, pre-date this wider disaster. And Democrats like Lyndon Johnson or the excruciatingly well-named Hubert Humphrey could simultaneously launch wars of the greatest ferocity and do so for their own career purposes, knowing that the war could not be won even while midwifing great national progressive strides in health care and civil rights. There were, to be sure, some very ugly moments in modern American history before the Wrecking Crew of the Right instantiated ugliness as standard operating procedure in the US of A.
But there were differences of substantial import then, too. The politics of the far right, to begin with, were the politics of the far right. Today they have simply been mainstreamed. Reagan, fortunately, has become a historical ghost for young people, not much different than Andrew Jackson in terms of meaningfulness to their lives. Before that he was a moderately successful or failed president, depending on how you define success. What very few remember is that just before that he was little more than a punch line. Throughout most of the 1970s, people used to laugh out loud about the idea of someone that ideologically nutty being president.
Moreover, even when there were excesses like Nixon or McCarthy, the bulk of the Republican Party could usually be counted on albeit far later than it should have to police itself. It was Barry Goldwater, after all, who rode up Pennsylvania Avenue with a delegation of Republicans to inform Tricky Dick that he was finished. It was the Eisenhower wing of the Party that ultimately turned on McCarthy.
Ike did more than that. He alsp wrote a letter to his brother Ed in 1954, in which he talked about the lunatics of the far right who wanted to undo the New Deal, now that the GOP had finally come to power after twenty years in the well-deserved wilderness. These folks were absolutely no different than the tea party freaks and scary monsters who today not only dominate the GOP, but own it entirely. What Eisenhower (not exactly a long-haired, dope-smoking, Trotskyite anti-capitalist revolutionary) said about them not only reveals the lunacy of their politics in completely unvarnished terms, but shows how fringe they were within the GOP, until the Reagan era:
"Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid."
Losing John Paul Stevens reminds us just how far down the road to suicidal self-destruction we've now come. He is the last of his generation. It's not that Stevens was always a voice for liberal politics, or always showed progressive wisdom in his court decisions. He didn't, especially in his earlier years on the bench. But what he represented, especially of late, was an integrity and a selflessness that has all but entirely disappeared from American politics in our time.
If you doubt this proposition, then ask yourself this question: When was the last time you saw an act of genuine political courage in America? When was the last time you saw someone do the right thing because it was the right thing to do? When was the last time somebody sacrificed a job, or a few bucks, or their status among the freeze-dried, blow-hard, pontificator set of Washington's chattering class? Let alone something more. When was the last time you observed someone risk their lives, or perhaps decades in jail, for a principle?