Over the weekend Sarah Palin gave us another dose of seductive untruth. Her complaint about the Christmas bomber “lawyering up” wasn’t about finding the right policy against terrorists. It was a come-on to the Tea Party’s prejudices, egging them to believe that what Muttalab deserved was a dose of good old fashioned torture. Never mind that the Bush administration “lawyered up” Richard Reid, the failed shoe bomber in exactly the same fashion.
Her appeal to jingoism came with the phrase about giving the Christmas bomber the rights guaranteed by “our Constitution,” which she intoned a second time to make the point — also beloved of the Tea Party — that nobody deserves any rights except red-blooded Americans. Never mind that the whole point of operating under the Constitution is that everyone is given the same guarantees and rights.
But we all know why Palin has spiked the tea. In the past year the Republicans have decided, as a group, that fostering lies, attacks, and smears is good politics.
So it is. Americans are worried and jittery. The very mention of terrorism still makes millions of people believe that the next 9/11 is just around the corner. Rationality is cold comfort in such a climate. In politics, morality often comes down to whatever works. And what is working right now is to spike the tea with poison and tell people that it’s actually sugar.
The overall picture of a fix-it President struggling to get the country to follow him may be discouraging. Every rational adult knows that the social cost of entitlement programs and health care has one inevitable outcome: higher taxes and lowered benefits. But when the kids are throwing a tantrum, the adults feel helpless.
I take a different, more positive view. America turned a dark corner when Nixon and Reagan inflamed the worst aspects of populism with manipulative demagoguery. After a generation of social reform and altruism, they brought back selfishness, prejudice, and xenophobia — with add ons against feminism and gay rights, Using code words like “law and order” and “silent majority,” the right brought about a populism that was really the revival of the Know-Nothings of a bygone era.
Palin plays into that Know-Nothing strain the way Spiro Agnew did with his “pointy-headed intellectuals.” Because of it, the very smart people who saved us from a potential depression and who want to solve other looming crises can be vilified in favor of very crafty people who play upon rough prejudice.
My positive take is that Obama and the other smart people (always remembering that they are more than smart but also good-hearted, far-seeing, honest, and credible) are playing the role of adults trying to call forth the adult in all of us. Americans have had the luxury of a long period of post-adolescent irresponsibility. The crown prince of that trend was George W. Bush, for whom both luxury and irresponsibility were a given. It will take a long time to bring a turn around, and Obama may drag the Democrats into some tight places. No one has the right to demand that this society grow up. But eventually that’s where we are headed, and since Obama gives adulthood the best face I can imagine from a President, I am encouraged, no matter who thinks they want another glass of poison tea.
Published by Huffington Post