It is now 60 years that I’ve been following American politics closely. Long enough to get surprised when the way things have always been change dramatically into something never seen before.
I have been surprised, for example, to see people who regard themselves as “conservative” readily support leaders who break well-established American precedent. Aren’t conservatives the people who recognize that traditions are there for a reason – that you respect established norms, not just trample on them?
How is it, for example, that our citizens on the conservative side are OK with the Republicans in the Senate refusing to do what every other Senate in American history has done—i.e., to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court by confirming a justice nominated by the president? In the past, the Senate has rejected one nominee or another for this reason or that. But never has a Senate declared itself unwilling to confirm any nominee.
In recent times, less than a year before an election, Senates in which Democrats were the majority confirmed John Paul Stevens, William Rehnquist, and Anthony Kennedy after nominations made by Republican presidents.
So the question arises: what accounts for the willingness of “conservatives” to countenance such a break from what is not only established tradition, but also the clear sense of what the Constitution says should happen?
Two answers have come to me.
First, it seems that, these days, a lot of people who call themselves conservatives don’t really care much about conservative principles, but are more focused on attitude and posture. The rise of Donald Trump to front-runner in this year’s Republican race demonstrates this: antagonism trumps principle.
Second, it could be that the intense antagonism toward our current president goes a very long way to making any tactic to thwart him seem justifiable.
If President Obama is as terrible a president as many on the right apparently believe he is – and polls have shown that a substantial number of Republicans think that Obama is the anti-Christ, that he is doing things like what Hitler did, that he wants the terrorists to win, etc. – perhaps their abhorrence for him overwhelms any respect for the idea of the president’s rightful role under the Constitution.
People who believe those things may want their leaders to do everything they can – regardless of its violation of traditional American norms and ideals – to prevent such a man from performing his constitutional responsibilities.
But that leads to yet another big surprise in our times: that such a monstrous image of Barack Obama could be held by millions of the citizens of a society in which people have free and almost unlimited access to information.
In closed societies, like the Soviet Union under Stalin and in Nazi Germany under Hitler, people can be closed off from facts and ideas that conflict with the party line being fed to everyone. But in a free society like ours, with an open “marketplace of ideas,” our founders expected the true to prevail over the false.
I’ve no doubt that historians will find plenty to criticize in how Mr. Obama has conducted his presidency. (I have written such critiques since 2009.) But I feel equally certain that historians will note how extraordinary it was that it was possible in a society like ours to convince so many people to believe an image of this president that was so completely at odds with what was on display right in front of everyone’s eyes.
Whatever Mr. Obama’s shortcomings, as president he has been: 1) quite moderate, by the standards of advanced democracies generally and the American policy mainstream in particular; 2) eager to compromise – and loath to engage in confrontation – with his political opponents; and 3) devoted to reasonableness.
All of that is so readily demonstrated by information available to everyone, not to mention on clear display on the TV screens of every citizen, that I would never have guessed it possible for any political/media force to sell so many people on the right this image of a presidential monster.
But there it is – a remarkable achievement by the leaders and media of the right. An achievement quite surprising to me and, I would wager, one that would have astonished also founders of our freedom like Jefferson and Madison.
And so the Republican base, having bought this image of the president, applauds their Republican Senators as a bulwark against the monstrous as they take a course of action that not so long ago would likely have been considered a crime against true conservatism.