Friday, December 08, 2006

'A Casual Contempt for the Electorate at Large'

I was skimming through Political Fictions, Joan Didion’s classic 2001 treatise on the American political system, looking for another passage when I came across the following one. It is, in my view, more relevant now than when it was written and worth pondering as the 110th Congress unpacks its bags and a new era of governance gets underway:
“The notion that a failed attempt to impeach the president might nonetheless have accomplished exactly what it was meant to accomplish, that the desired phoenix might even then be rising from the ashes of acquittal, might have seemed to many, in the immediate wake of the November 1998 election, when the disinclination of the American people to see the president impeach translated into the loss of five Republican seats, wishful.

“Over the next several weeks, as they contemplated the unexpected hit they had taken by feeding the greed of their conservative base for impeachment, Republicans would float many fanciful scenarios. . . . By mid-December 1998, former Senator Alan K. Simpson was expressing what had become by default the last-ditch position of most Republicans, which was that any hemorrhaging they were suffering outside their conservative base could be contained before 2000 by the putative inability of these less ideological voters to remember that long. ‘The attention span of Americans,’ Simpson said, ‘is which movie is coming out next month?’ and whether the quarterly report on their stock will change.’

“This casual contempt for the electorate at large was by then sufficiently general to pass largely unremarked upon. A good deal of what seemed at the time opaque in the firestorm that consumed the attention of the United States from January 1998 until the spring of 1999 has since been illuminated, but what remains novel, and unexplained, was the increasingly histrionic insistence of the political establishment that it stood apart from, and indeed above, the rest of the country.”

Painting: "Stump Speaking" (1854) by George Caleb Bingham

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