Two emotions war within many of us as we contemplate the 1996 presidential election. Who could not be elated that the electorate is poised to reject the Gingrich agenda? The public’s formation of a profoundly negative opinion of Newt — despite little criticism from the major media — renews a skeptic’s faith in the populace.
Yet President Clinton and his party seem sadly unequal to the governing opportunity that may stretch before them. Tactically energetic, they lack soul. Clinton’s Mephistophelian pact with his former political adviser Dick Morris was sealed in secrecy but not ignorance. The tabloid disclosures that have ensued seem consonant with our sense of the White House betrayal that may await us.
The most powerful elected officials in this country (Clinton, Vice President Gore, Speaker Gingrich, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott) are all career politicians from the South. At the risk of stereotyping, one can say Southern politicians tend to exhibit two broad characteristics: volubility in the name of populism and cold ambition in the service of the rich. Oratory becomes an end in itself and gets pitched only to commonplaces — values, family, security, and the like — in order to divert attention from one’s patrons.
And where is Dole in all this? Perhaps the shocker of the election is the Republicans’ failure to field a principled conservative. Dole has cut so many backroom deals (we caught him smoking tobacco money) that he’s lost himself. He’s selling tax-cut funny money, but has nothing authentic to offer.
More than Clinton’s rhetorical bridge to the future or Dole’s to the past, we need links to the present. The American writer best able to help us comprehend our current situation was among the least explicitly political: William Faulkner.
Scattered throughout Faulkner’s novels is the saga of an increasingly successful Southern family called Snopes. The patriarch of Snopesism is one Flem, the son of a rural arsonist. Faulkner conceived the family’s tale this way: Flem Snopes “gradually consumes a small village until there is nothing left in it for him to eat.” Then he moves to the city, where he and his relatives “corrupt the local government with crooked politics, buy up all the colonial homes and tear them down and chop up the lots into subdivisions.”
Twenty years later, a student at the University of Virginia asked Faulkner if the Snopeses’ ability to dehumanize got worse as they moved from the country into towns and cities. Faulkner replied, “It got worse because of the contempt which the ability to use people develops in anyone. There are very few people that have enough grandeur of soul to be able to use people and not develop contempt for [them]. And that — the contempt for people — came not because they moved to the city but out of success.”
Gingrich’s contempt for people is obvious. And although a successful Clinton may express a humble gratitude on election night, he may privately feel some contempt as well. Dick Morris reportedly told his call girl that Clinton “lacks compassion and common sense.” Clinton’s embrace of Morris’ cynical agenda gives some credence to the quote.
A Clinton victory, though punishing to the radical right, could continue the degradation of our public culture. We have passed the era when rich whites could sponsor demagogues to enlist poor whites by openly defaming blacks. Still, a vulgar manipulation of the electorate endures.
Meanwhile we tolerate obscene income disparities, deteriorating public schools, wasteful military appropriations, inadequate environmental protections, and corporate domination of legislation.
Of course, history doesn’t only move in linear ways. Excess tends to be countered by a swing in another direction, and the existence of any trait is usually predicated on the coexistence of its opposite. Just as Southern culture comprises more than Snopesism, so Southern politicians can offer more than raw ambition robed in populist rhetoric.
Consider Arkansas Sen. William Fulbright, who employed an energetic Georgetown undergraduate, Bill Clinton, in part-time jobs. Fulbright was devoted to elevating education and enhancing international communication. He was the brainiest of the Vietnam War critics. Or consider North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin, who summed up his committee’s hearings on Watergate with wisdom he said was well-known in the Deep South. “I think that those who participated in this effort to nullify the laws of man and the laws of God overlooked one of the laws of God, which is set forth in the seventh verse of the sixth chapter of Galatians: ‘Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’ ”
What, then, should we urge for a second Clinton term? In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner said it was “his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.”
Precisely at the time when our discourse has been debased, there is both need and hope for a renewed civic chorus. The American character itself comprises paradoxes. Although we can seem to be a nation of small-minded conformists, many citizens have carved out private spaces where they’ve nurtured their goodwill. We’re more intact and caring than we appear.
In 1996, the public seems to be asking for a foundation of civility. The electorate is sick of the slogans that pass for reasoned debate. Political momentum is shifting neither left nor right, but toward those who insist that intelligent and compassionate public actions must inform the next century if we are to live honorably in it.