Why Hillary Clinton Was Probably Lying when She Said She’s Against Civility in Politics

The Washington Examiner thinks that Hillary Clinton is a radical. In his column today, Philip Wegmann correctly points out that Clinton is sending mixed signals when it comes to so-called civility in politics. specifically, Wegmann notes how earlier this this month, Clinton wrote: “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.” But, this week, Clinton strikes a different tune, saying “we have to do everything we can to bring our country together.”

Wegmann then concludes that Clinton was only being truthful when she denounced civility.

It’s unclear, however, why one ought to assume Clinton was telling the truth about civility when she was against it, but was lying when she said she was for it.

On the contrary, experience suggests that establishment leftists like Hillary Clinton are very much in favor of “civility” in politics, because for people like her, the ideal political milieu is very often that of the “Era of Consensus” that predominated from the end of World War II into the late 1960s. Some historians would even date this “age of bi-partisanship” as more or less extending all the way to 1980 — at which point Ronald Reagan and his conservatives allegedly ushered in a more coarse and partisan version of American politics.1

The preference for this consensus over robust ideological conflict was certainly evident to Murray Rothbard, who in the late 1970s wrote:

Political scientists, journalists, and the Establishment generally laud the current two party system as gloriously non-ideological — as providing very little choice between fuzzy programs which overlap almost completely — so that the only choice in this bipartisan haze of issues is between the personalities of the candidates rather than the programs of the parties. Political parties, and more particularly party programs and platforms, mean very little these days in the actual conduct of government, particularly in the dominant executive branch, whether on the federal, state, or local level.2

Whether or not the consensus model actually ended with Reagan — as mainstream scholars and journalists usually claim — remains debatable.

The Era of Consensus in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Nevertheless, it is clear that the level of consensus and ideological sameness achieved in the 1950s and 1960s remains an ideal and perceived Golden Age among journalists and politicians. They still look back fondly on this period when, as Arthur Burns noted in the 1950s, “It is no longer a matter of serious controversy whether the government shall play a positive role in helping to maintain a high level of economic activity.”

And domestic economic policy wasn’t the only area in which there was consensus. Nearly everyone agreed the US government should be active in foreign affairs in order to oppose Soviet Communism. People who attempted to critique American foreign policy too forcefully were reminded that “politics stops at the water’s edge” and that it was the job of Americans to support the American regime in doing its work.

So widespread were these ideological agreements, in fact, that in a book chapter titled “The Ideology of the Liberal Consensus,” historian Godfrey Hodgson writes: “Whether you look at the writings of intellectuals or at the positions taken by practicing politicians or at the data on public opinion, it is impossible not to be struck by the degree to which the majority of Americans in those years accepted the same system of assumptions.”

On the matter of surveys, Hodgson continues:

Four times between 1959 and 1961, the Gallup poll asked its sample what they regarded as the “most important problem” facing the nation. Each time, the most frequent answer (given in each case by at least close to half of the respondents and sometimes by far more than half) was “keeping the peace,” sometimes glossed as “dealing with Russia:’ No domestic issue came anywhere close to challenging that outstanding concern.

This was, of course, noticed by people at the time. Television producer Fred Freed recalled:

When I began doing my documentaries at NBC in 1961 we lived in a consensus society. Those were the days of the Cold War. There was an enemy outside, the communists, Nikita Khrushchev, the Red Chinese. . . . back then there was general agreement in the united states about what was right and what was wrong about the country. Nobody really questioned the system. .. . We had a common set of beliefs and common values.

Certainly, there were those who voiced dissent. Media and cultural elites to this day like to trot out McCarthyism as evidence of turmoil in this period, but in reality, McCarthyism was a short-lived phenomenon that quickly yielded to the Liberal Consensus. Thus, by 1960, Clinton Rossiter at Cornell University could write “In this favored country, we have always found more things on which to agree than to disagree.”

Those who continued to challenge the consensus were dismissed as, more or less, mentally deficient. When it came to the right wing, dissenters were called paranoid, as in a famous essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” written for Harper’s by ultra-establishment historian Richard Hofstadter. While paranoia is not strictly confined to the right wing, Hofstadtler admits, it is nonetheless a significant factor in those who refused to accept the consensus of the time.

Consensus Is Not Normal

In the bigger picture of American political history, however, this Age of Consensus is the aberration, not the “normal” way of doing things.

Reflecting the supposedly “gloriously non-ideological” two party system of his own day, Rothbard noted the fiercely ideological battles of a previous age:

It was not always thus. In the 19th century … the parties were fiercely ideological. Their constituencies were partisan, and voter participation rates in elections were very high. Platforms meant something and were battled over. So firmly drawn were the lines that it was rare for a Republican to vote Democrat or vice versa; disenchantment in one’s party was rather reflected in a failure to vote. Th e drive of each party, therefore, was not to capture the floating independent voter by moving toward the middle, but, on the contrary, to whip up the enthusiasm of its own militant supporters, and thereby to “bring out the new vote.”

It’s difficult for many modern Americans to imagine the sheer level of partisanship and open hostility to prevailed between political parties. As historian John Grinspan describes mid-19th century politics, it was a time of ostracizing family members who voted “incorrectly,” and of school-yard fights over party affiliation. This was further emphasized by an openly partisan press that was interested in anything but civility and consensus. As I wrote in an essay in the days before the 2016 election:

Things were far “nastier” in the 19th century, when voters often identified with a specific political party on an emotional level that far surpasses what people report today. Moreover, heavy-handed and emotional attacks on candidates were fueled by the country’s thousands of partisan newspapers which were like today’s blogs and constantly churned out emotionally charged content.

At the time, there was no attempt to claim impartiality or “professionalism” among journalists. The modern veneer of journalistic objectivity has always been a farce, of course, but in the 19th century, reporters were honest and open about their biases.

All of these factors led to a very robust, raucous, and even bawdy culture around elections and partisan politics that would strike many modern Americans as violent and barbaric today.

There’s little reason to believe that this is what Hillary Clinton wants to go back to. While a populist political environment of this could at times favor growth in government power, it has also been shown to be a system that can also go in favor of decentralization and laissez faire. It was also marked by a refusal to accept the opinions of national experts, by a lack of credulity toward government claims, and by a demand for more local control. 

In contrast, the Era of Consensus was a period when Americans were taught to trust “the experts,” to defer to “the system” and to limit their political activism to voting for one of the two major parties — which primarily supplied only candidates who were likely to support the bi-partisan consensus themselves.

One can therefore appreciate why, among more elderly mainstream politicians like Clinton, the preferred model very much remains the very unpopulist and very “civil” liberal consensus of the mid-20th century. This is what the over-65 crowd still hopes to return to, remembering the good old days when political opinion was rarely allowed by intellectual gatekeepers to step outside the “nrom” in any major media outlet or university classroom.

Clinton and friends have reason for hope. While the official histories tell us that this consensus system died out long ago, its death may have been quite overstated.

After all, “Trumpism,” — as with the so-called Reagan Revolution — is not nearly as radical as its opponents pretend it is. Reaganism did not signal the end of any government department, and government spending only grew during his tenure. No major changes to federal architecture in favor of decentralization ever occurred. Likewise, with Trumpism, what government department is in any serious danger of being eliminated or defunded? In what way is the federal government facing any significant budget cuts or declines in revenue? There are few signs of any real upheavals in social, military, or economic policy.

Certainly, an ideological consensus among the general public appears to be long gone, but the effects of this appear to be making little difference in how Washington, DC operates. And as long as that’s the case, there’s little reason to believe Hillary Clinton wants any meaningful dissent from the usual “civil” way of doing things.

  • 1. For a summary of these historical periods, see the dissertation A Choice, Not an Echo: Polarization and the Transformation of the American Party System by Sam Hoffmann Rosenfeld.(https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/12274614/Rosenfeld_gsas.harvard_0084L_11666.pdf;sequence=1)
  • 2. See Rothbard’s The Progessive Era, Chapter 4.

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