Of rifts and the right wing

There was much whining and gnashing of teeth this weekend over the lost of unity surrounding commemorations of the 9/11 tragedy. The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times ran front page stories about the new divisive tone.

The implication is that no one gets along in America anymore -- and that things have gotten much worse since a new president took office a bit more than a year and a half ago.

Can we shove that aside for moment and talk frankly about something few seem willing to address? This kind of "incivility" is what usually happens when a Democrat takes over and the right-wing finds itself really really unhappy.

True, as a nation, our memories are short -- but certainly we have not forgotten the Clinton years already? And I'm not even talking about impeachment -- let's go way back to the early years after his election: Posse Comitatus, the heavily-armed Branch Davidians, and the bombing in Oklahoma City. Anti-Catholic right wingers sought to undermine John Kennedy, and the very Catholic Fr. Coughlin attacked FDR on the radio, and the "American Liberty League" rose up from the supposed grass-roots to challenge Roosevelt's march toward socialism.

In 1964, political scientist Richard Hofstadter gave this tendency a now well-known name, dubbing it the "paranoid style of American politics" in a Harper's magazine essay. Fringe groups on the right, Hofstadter noted, often rose up to delegitimize leadership on the center-left -- a tendency he saw as running through much of U.S. history.

Conservatives would argue this notion -- and point to the 1960s and 1970s as a time when left-wing extremists sought to undermine belief in the government and specifically struggled to remove Richard Nixon from office. Let's stipulate that all extremists from either side of the spectrum are toxic to a political environment that requires some consensus and coalition to survive -- but let's also note that the hard right goes there much more often than the left.

Recall the election of George W. Bush -- among the most controversial presidential votes since the Reconstruction era. Bush lost the popular vote, and his victory via the Electoral College hung on the results in a state then-controlled by his brother. The Supreme Court -- which included several members appointed by his father -- sided with Bush, and he became president.

Yes, there was anger. But Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman did not lead a hard-core opposition to everything Bush did. (Lieberman, in fact, drifted even further to the right himself after the 9/11 attacks.) Left-wing anger at the election mostly took the form of -- not Posse Comitatus or Glen Beck -- but a satirical movie by Michael Moore called "Fahrenheit 9/11." This got more heated later in the Bush administration, yes, but after a series of policy failures. No one ever accused him of not being an American citizen, or working in secret with shadowy Muslim groups.

There is nothing new under the sun -- especially the part of the sun that shines on politics. Obama is facing the same kind of exaggerated opposition that has typically come from the right -- and he would whether or not he bailed out Detroit, passed healthcare, or re-regulated Wall Street. He has not bitten off more than he can chew, he has not intentionally alienated whole sections of the country. His main sin? He's a Democrat.

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