by Victor Davis Hanson
San Francisco Chronicle
Are things really as ghastly as they appear this election year? President Bush is derided as a liar, brain-dead and a coward, not just by fringe groups but by prominent members of the Democratic establishment. Major intellectuals and artists lament that John Kerry won all three debates by skilled debating — and yet gained little ground.
Even the wives and children are involved now. Kerry and his running mate John Edwards gratuitously broached the sexuality of Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter; his wife fired back that Kerry is not “a good man.” And just when we got a brief respite, Teresa Heinz Kerry derided Laura Bush as never having a real job — before apologizing that, yes, a decade at work in public school counts as real employment.
Third-party ads, fueled by the money of multimillionaires, imply that Kerry was also a coward and traitor and that Bush was AWOL. CBS News anchor Dan Rather is caught promulgating clearly forged documents, an ABC memo warns against the chimera of objectivity, and Sinclair Broadcast Group agrees to air only portions of a clearly partisan film after Democrats howled. There is no need to mention the conspiracy theories of “Fahrenheit 911,” Teresa Heinz Kerry’s “scumbag” and “shove it,” or Dick Cheney’s use of the F-word.
Meanwhile, the back-and-forth acrimony prompts thousands of lawyers to contest an election in advance, hoping to win through the courts should they fail in the popular vote or Electoral College. Unfounded rumors circulate about a renewed draft, the end of Social Security and even of big-shot conservative politicians crowding ahead of the more needy for flu shots.
Is our republic paralyzed with hate, about to experience a dreaded next stage of violence in the streets, akin to the last dark days of the Roman Republic when gangs stormed the forum? Not really.
There is a long history of similar American political invective. The elections of 1864 saw far worse slurs. Statesmen like Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan were routinely decried as savages, baboons and senile. For all the current name-calling, no one has accused either candidate of fathering illegitimate children, turning the country over to the Pope, or being intoxicated while on the job — standard election year slander of the past. There are no riots in the streets, as was common in 1968.
Yet the true nature of our loud divisiveness is rarely remarked upon. In the last three decades, there has been a steady evolution from liberal to moderately conservative politics among a majority of the voters, whether gauged by the recent spate of Republican presidents or Bill Clinton’s calculated shift to the center. Now the House, Senate, presidency and the majority of state governorships and legislatures are in Republican hands. A Bush win will ensure a conservative Supreme Court for a generation.
In contrast, the universities, the arts, the major influential media and Hollywood are predominately liberal — and furious. They bring an enormous amount of capital, talent, education and cultural influence into the political fray — but continue to lose real political power. The talented elite plays the same role to the rest of America as the Europeans do to the United States — venting and seething because the supposedly less sophisticated, but far more powerful, average Joes don’t embrace their visions of utopia.
Elites from college professors and George Soros to Bruce Springsteen and Garrison Keillor believe that their underappreciated political insight is a natural byproduct of their own proven artistic genius, education, talent or capital. How then can a tongue-tied George W. Bush and his cronies so easily fool Americans, when novelists, actors, singers, comedians and venture capitalists have spent so much time and money warning them of their danger?
For all Sean Penn’s rants, Rather’s sermons, Michael Moore’s mythodramas and Jon Stewart’s postmodern snickers, America, even in times of a controversial war and rocky economy, is still not impressed. National Public Radio, “Nightline” and the New York Times are working overtime to assert their views in this philosophical debate; Jimmy Carter and Al Gore — not George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole — are fuming. Most Americans snore or flip the channel.
It is apparently a terrible thing to be sensitive, glib, smart, educated or chic — and not be listened to, as we have seen from this noisy and often hysterical campaign among elites. That is the real divide in this country, and it is only going to get worse.