The Age of Scorched-Earth Politics, And Why American Democracy Will Survive

The recent passing of Senator and one-time presidential candidate Robert Dole reminded me just how far down the slippery slope we have travelled towards today’s scorched-earth politics.

In his heyday, Bob Dole was as tough, harsh and “partisan” as they come. After Dole won the 1988 Republican Iowa caucuses in a big upset of the presumptive favorite, Vice President George Bush, the Bush campaign launched a series of last-minute TV attack ads about Dole before the subsequent New Hampshire primary.

The Bush attack ads worked famously, as Bush won New Hampshire and the race for the Republican nomination was essentially over.

In a scene that would never happen today because it was so unscripted, Bush and Dole appeared remotely on the same TV screen on NBC right after Bush was declared winner in New Hampshire. Anchor Tom Brokaw asked Dole if there was anything he would like to say directly to Bush. In a moment that is seminal to political junkies, Dole said, “Yes, tell him to stop lying about my record.” Pretty normal stuff by today’s measure, but “mean” enough to cost Dole any shot of being taken seriously going forward.

The irony, of course, is that many eulogizing Dole after his recent passing spoke of his bipartisanship, his kindness and his love for the democratic process.

The attack on Dole worked so well for Bush that his team reprised the approach to dismantle the Democratic nominee for president, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, in the general election with the Willie Horton ad. At the time, Dukakis was polling nationally about 20% ahead of Bush. Willie Horton put a stop to that and Bush won the presidency.  By today’s standards, as reprehensible as the ad is in race baiting, it almost seems tame.

Lessons were learned. One could make a case that the 1988 race was the opening round in what has become the scorched-earth approach to present day politics and media.

It was not lost on me that right around the time of Dole’s death, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in 2021 found the United States for the first time on the list of “backsliding” democracies.

For me, the correlation is too hard to ignore.

About a day after that report, I was working out in a local fitness club, and Fox News, sound off, was on the TV screen. A continuous loop of about five seconds of video of the thugs who robbed and smashed a Louis Vuitton retail store was running for about a minute (a lifetime on TV).  Over and over played the heinous video with the title “Democrats Soft on Crime” on the screen, under the continuous loop of senseless violence. No doubt the piece did its job of enraging and dividing, satiating the audience.  Just a normal segment on a normal news day in America 2021.

In the same dizzying news cycle were the reports of the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 attack on the Capitol and the role elected officials played, from the Trump White House on down, to subvert the election. Having one party support the idea of nullifying an election and denying the results has not happened in our lifetime. This is big news. This is scary stuff.

How ironic that Trump’s supporters in Congress have been using Stop the Steal to disenfranchise voters as a means to raise political profiles and donations online, when that’s exactly what they are doing—still trying to steal an election. I am pretty sure what Bob Dole would say about that.

Trump’s brand, by his own definition, is about winning, and is the real motivation behind his relentless disinformation campaign to never admit the perpetual “winner” actually lost. It’s hard to believe this isn’t blatantly obvious to anyone paying attention, period. A part of me, I guess, still lives in Bob Dole’s America where you call out a liar.

It was a crushing blow for America’s most brash “winner” to lose on the largest stage of all. So, Trump began to communicate, over and over (while raising millions online by stoking this fantasy) like the Fox crime story, a narrative to enrage and manipulate his base.

A great primer on how to turn reality upside-down is the film Where’s My Roy Cohn about one of Trump’s mentors, the late Roy Cohn. There’s a surreal scene in the movie where 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace interviews Cohn and asks Cohn why in his politics Cohn so viciously attacks the gay community. Wallace goes on to tell Cohn it is common knowledge that Cohn is gay and has contracted the AIDS virus. Cohn seems to lean forward and attacks Wallace, accusing the media of making things up. Fake news. Cohn died from AIDS a week after that interview.

As Dorothy says to her dog Toto in the classic film, The Wizard of Oz, when arriving in the very bizarre land of Oz, “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas (ironically, Dole’s beloved state) anymore.”

So how do these seemingly disparate pieces all seem to come together? And, can American democracy and pluralism survive?

This pattern of seek and destroy in our politics is part of the new normalization of division and discord that has frayed psyches and pulled America apart—and assured that the political base shows up at election time. It’s not just the right that is polluting the discourse. Barack Obama famously called out the “woke” left element of our society for being judgmental or “casting stones” when someone might use “the wrong verb.”  

People may be getting tired of the nonsense. The collective psyches of Americans are fatigued. Holding up falsehoods is exhausting. Americans are starting to figure it out, and wacky conspiracies like QAnon are finally getting outed.

So, there is hope amid this toxic environment. America is a stitched-together tapestry of communities.  We are a nation of laws. We always look for a better day and for our better angels. We are optimistic, a land where anything is possible. 

Maybe that’s why a TV show like Ted Lasso and the character’s optimism is such a hit right now. We seem to be rejecting this new normal and have a desire to get back to the sense of community and decency that has always been the country’s strength. 

Having just seen the Broadway version of my favorite movie (admitting that I didn’t read the book) To Kill a Mockingbird, I am reminded of my favorite scene in both the play and the movie. In the scene, Tom Robinson, wrongly accused of assaulting a white woman in the deep south, is in his jail cell. It’s late at night. His attorney Atticus Finch, played on Broadway by Jeff Daniels and in the movie by Gregory Peck, is sitting on the jailhouse steps. He’s there to protect Tom from an angry lynch mob that shows up to render retribution.

After the mob assembles and attempts to breach the jail, Finch’s young children, his son,  Jem, and daughter Scout, the star and narrator of this classic American story, race to the scene. After a brief scuffle, Scout touches the heart of one of the men intent on hanging Tom Robinson.

Scout says, “Hey Mr. Cunningham” to one of the members of the mob who she knows and starts an innocent one-sided conversation with him. With his head down, Scout senses his embarrassment and says, “I sure meant no harm Mr. Cunningham…. I go to school with your boy Walter… tell him ‘hey.’” Mr. Cunningham raises his bowed head, touched by Scout’s humanity, and says to her, “No harm taken young lady… I’ll tell Walter you said hey…” and directs the mob to disassemble. 

America will eventually disassemble the political mobs who have taken over its political discourse. We did it before.

In 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy held hearings based on the fantasy that the United State government was rife with communists. His chief legal counsel was Roy Cohn. McCarthyism eventually collapsed because it was founded on a lie. Roy Cohn lost his law license and was disbarred in New York state, where he lived, in 1986. Cohn died the same year.

America may be ready to be America again.

Photograph of Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins

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