We haven't talked about this for awhile. (And I wouldn't want William K. Wolfrum to think we'd forgotten about him entirely!) But we're reminded of it by the comments on the Huffington Post and other lefty blogs in response to the attempted terrorist attack on Vice President Cheney this week (Their consensus: it was either staged, or unfortunate that it didn't succeed.)
I don't know if we've previously mentioned Peter Wood’s book, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, but it has a great deal to say by way of explanation about the uncivility we've been discussing. Here's a quote from Wood's book in this piece by Stanley Kurtz at NRO.
“New Anger is a spectacle to be witnessed by an appreciative audience, not an attempt to win over the uncommitted....If in your anger you reduce your opponent to the status of someone unworthy or unable to engage in legitimate exchange, real politics comes to an end....Whoever embraces New Anger is bound to find that, at least in the political realm, he has traded the possibility of real influence for the momentary satisfactions of self-expression.”
That's it in a nutshell. What is interesting about all of this is the substitution of self-satisfaction for actually getting things done. Or rather, the idea that you get things done by default, tearing down your opponents rather than actually accomplishing something yourself. (Could it have anything to do with the psychological shift that accompanies the transition of our economy from manufacturing to service? An interesting topic, alas for another time.)
There is a striking story related by Robert Caro in the introduction to his Pulitzer-Prize winning The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (anyone who saw Ric Burns' mammoth New York documentary will know the massive impact Moses had not only on the city, but on urban renewal throughout America) that illustrates this point perfectly.
When Moses was a student on the swim team at Yale, he developed a plan for the funding of minor sports (loosely defined as any sport which wasn't football) by creating a pool of funds which would be divided evenly between all minor sports. In this case, Moses intended to approach a current donor and ask for his annual contribution without telling him that his money would be used not for his pet sport, but for all sports. The captain of the swim team told Moses this was unethical. Moses tells the captain that unless he drops his objections, he will resign from the team. The captain called his bluff, accepted his resignation, and Moses never swam for Yale again.
Fast forward nearly 50 years, and Moses is now king of the hill in New York, beholden to neither mayor nor governor. The new mayor, Robert Wagner, is in the process of making reappointments to city commissions. Moses is on three commissions, including planning, where he can approve the plans he's developed in other commissions (an obvious conflict of interest). Wagner, urged by reformers, reappoints Moses to the other commissions but not planning. Moses tells Wagner that unless he is reappointed to planning, he will resign the other two commissions. He produces the appointment form. Without a word, Wagner signs the appointment.
That's what power is all about.
Now, this is not a treatise on the right and wrong ways to use power, merely an observation that it's very difficult to acquire and retain power when your only objective seems to be to antagonize and slur the other side in as caustic a way as possible - when, as Wood points out, you "[trade] the possibility of real influence for the momentary satisfactions of self-expression." And so one has to ask if these people really want to change the world, or merely feel good about themselves? You can't judge what's in the heart; you can only draw conclusions based on observations. Observing the behavior of such people as we've been discussing, the conclusions are sadly apparent.