The Washington Post columnist and psychiatrist Charles Krauthammer coined the term “Bush Derangement Syndrome” a couple of years ago to describe people whose opposition to the president he thought substantively baseless and therefore irrational. (He was not, however, suggesting that this was an actual mental illness.) The term has become very popular, primarily among online Bush supporters, some of whom really do think of BDS as a mental illness.
But as much as the national media sometimes try to make opponents of the administration in general and liberal bloggers in particular look deranged (and more on that below), what’s actually going on in the minds of some Bush opponents — liberals, moderates, and even a few old-school conservatives — is a little more complicated, and a lot healthier, than Krauthammer and his ilk believe.
As it happens, several blogs have touched on this issue in the past few days. Here’s Ezra Klein on how he became a political “radical”:
What I found, and what drove me to change, was that my imputation of good intentions and willingness to trust official information were creating a profound analytical deficiency where, time and again, my observations and predictions would be proven wrong because I’d chosen to believe that I wasn’t being lied to (emphasis added). It wasn’t that my rage bubbled and broiled till, with one ear-shattering roar, I became an aggressive partisan, it’s that I had a metric upon which to judge myself — the eventual accuracy of my arguments and assumptions. And by actually paying attention to those results, I found I had to repeatedly recalibrate my cynicism and partisanship.
Ezra also notes posts in a similar vein in recent days by Josh Marshall, Steve at The Carpetbagger Report and Kevin Drum on the same subject.
Marshall, responding to an e-mail from a reader who had noted that during the past few years the tone of Josh’s site, TalkingPointsMemo.com, had grown harsher, had this to say:
The president twice took the presidency with a divided electorate — first a minority president, then a 51% president. And he proceeded to govern as though he had a mandate to completely remake it, often in what appeared to be profoundly destructive ways geared to short-term political benefit and intended to consolidate power. The folks who’ve made efforts toward bipartisan compromise have again and again, in this era, been played for chumps.
(And I think it’s important to point out that this trend began well before 9/11; for example, the administration pretended to cooperate with Sen. Edward Kennedy on No Child Left Behind, only to knife him in the back when it came time to put money where its rhetoric was.)
… in this all-or-nothing crisis the country has been passing through, I think it’s made sense to line up with those who say, No. … That leads to a certain loss of nuance sometimes in commentary and a loss in the variegation of our politics generally. As a writer, [I] often [find this] less satisfying.
But I cannot see looking back on all this, the threat the country is under, and saying, I stood aloof.
Steve at The Carpetbagger Report, after reading Marshall, had this to say:
When I started [my] site, I made a conscious decision to strike a “moderate” tone. The writers I enjoy most — people like Josh and Kevin Drum — can deliver devastating political critiques, but do so in even-tempered, always-fair, always-intellectually-honest ways. It’s a style I’ve tried to emulate, and will continue to do so. But like Josh, given the political environment, I find it impossible to take a detached, impartial look at the landscape and maintain a stoic temperament. …
On the one hand, when current events spiral out of control, and I see one side of the political divide as responsible, there’s no point in pretending otherwise. On the other hand, I could try to maintain some kind of dishonest neutrality in the hopes of maintaining moderate street cred, but if political rivals will perceive this as timidity to be exploited, there’s no motivation to carry on a bi-partisan charade.
Finally, Kevin Drum, having read Marshall, adds this key point, which ties into the earlier point I made about national-media coverage of anti-Bush bloggers, particularly before the recent Connecticut senatorial primary:
And just recently I’ve been thinking about what a genuinely profound story this is, one that the mainstream media ought to be more interested in. Instead of writing incessantly about “angry bloggers,” they ought to be asking why so many mild-mannered moderate liberals have become so radicalized during George Bush’s tenure. It deserves attention beyond the level of cliches and slogans.
Yes. Yes, it does. But I suspect that it won’t get that attention, not least because I see almost no evidence that the most influential journalists in the national media have a clue what those bloggers are saying. It has become almost a badge of honor for such journalists and pundits, if they admit to reading blogs at all, to say that they’ve read Kos and that “those people” are nuts. (Forget the fact that “those people” number in the hundreds, if not thousands, and run the gamut from radical socialist to old-school conservative.) You seldom see any indication that they’re reading such prominent (and relatively moderate) bloggers as these three, and that’s particularly odd inasmuch as Marshall, a journalist as well as an academic, breaks news from time to time and has been a pioneer in citizen journalism — the trend in American newspapers.
I’m not sure exactly what’s going on, but being more up on this than most national journalists, I’ve decided to hazard an educated guess.
I think a lot of people had deep misgivings about the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bush v. Gore, right from then-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist’s opening proviso that the ruling shouldn’t be viewed as any kind of precedent — for what is Supreme Court jurisprudence but the study of precedent? (Of course, the journalistic revelations that Bush in fact lost Florida, and therefore the election, in 2000 were still months away, and Greg Palast’s disclosure that the election had been stolen by Jeb Bush’s administration farther away still.) But I think most people figured, well, I’m not a lawyer, and if there’s really a problem with this, those who are lawyers will do something. Right?
Besides, we Americans have tended to come together after elections and at least try to work together on common problems for a while. So, despite some evidence to the contrary from the GOP-controlled Congress’ behavior during the Clinton administration, I think a lot of Americans quite understandably gave Bush the benefit of the doubt when he took office. For example, I was skeptical of his “faith-based initiative” for social services, coming as it did from a candidate who had sucked up to the right-wing Christian vote. As a religion reporter I had spent enough time around their leaders to view them with the deepest possible skepticism. But I was familiar with the work of John DiIulio, the man Bush named to head the program, and believed that his picking DiIulio indicated that he was serious about the program. (Not so much, as we learned from the article that enshrined “Mayberry Machiavellis” in the Political Lexicography Hall of Fame.)
A lot of people who hoped for good things from Bush’s administration got some letdowns in 2001. His limits on federally funded stem-cell research angered a lot of patients and their families, for example; on the eve of 9/11, Gallup found his approval rating to be just 51%. Still, even those who were questioning his competence continued to believe that he at least meant well. For example, a lot of people thought Bush’s tax-cut plan was irresponsible. But they felt they couldn’t prove it, and besides, Alan Greenspan said it was OK, so ….
And when we began talking about invading Iraq in the fall of 2002, I’m sure most Americans thought: Surely, we wouldn’t actually invade another country without a damned good reason. Right? And having no intelligence sources of their own, all they could do was hope that our government knew what it was doing, even as some people who knew what they were doing insisted that it did not.
But as they say, hope is not a plan.
The erosion began not just because there were no weapons of mass destruction found immediately in Iraq — I’d figured that would be a crapshoot, at best, for months — but because, as the months dragged on, the administration didn’t even act as if it cared. Moreover, signs that the occupation was being mismanaged were clear from the beginning — remember Rumsfeld’s blithe assertion that “Freedom is untidy”? — and as the Iraq situation deteriorated, so did the president’s support.
Other factors were peeling off support, too. For some, it was the administration’s dishonesty about Manhattan’s air quality after 9/11 (and the larger issue of the politicization of science, which carried over into such issues as global warming.) For others, it was deficit spending. For many others, it was torture — part of what we’d fought against in World War II, Korea and Vietnam — particularly as it became clear that the torture wasn’t just limited to a few isolated incidents at Abu Ghraib but was, in fact, policy set at the highest levels of our government.
But for a lot of people and for a long time, the focus remained on one or two issues rather than the big picture. That started to change in 2003, and this Oct. 29, 2003, post from Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum, back in Kevin’s “Calpundit” days, will probably help you understand why:
Earlier this week I had lunch with my mother. We got to talking about politics and she asked, “What’s happened to the Republican party? They used to just be the party of rich people.”
That’s actually a penetrating question, and I want to try and answer it. In fact, I mainly want to try and answer it for conservatives who wonder why liberals treat them like lepers.
The Republican party, of course, still is the party of rich people, but if that’s all it was then liberals like me would simply treat it as an ordinary opposition party to be fought civilly and compromised with when necessary. But it’s become much more than that over the past couple of decades. It has become completely unhinged. Try this on for size:
Republicans won’t rest until abortion is completely outlawed, Social Security is abolished, the welfare state is completely rolled back, the book of Genesis is taught in science classes, and the federal income tax is abolished.
When I occasionally repeat (milder) versions of this here, my conservative commenters think I’m nuts. “Every party has a few wingnuts,” they say. “These guys don’t have any real influence.”
And the thing is, I think they’re telling the truth. With a couple of exceptions, I think the kind of conservatives who visit here don’t believe this. It’s absurd. It’s a caricature.
But the problem is that I’m not sure they realize what their party is becoming. The heart and soul of Republican grass roots activism can be found pretty easily: it’s in Texas. The New Model radical right took over the Texas Republican party a decade ago and elected George Bush governor. They have since taken over the entire state and propelled one of their own to the presidency and another to leadership of the House of Representatives. They bring a messianic fervor to their task, and after successfully taking over the second biggest state in the union their sights are now set on the entire country. This is not a fringe group. It is the biggest, most active, most energetic, and most determined segment of the Republican party today.
Kevin goes on to say that if you want to know what these folks stand for, you can look at the Texas GOP platform to find out. So he does, constructing a table in which he posts selected excerpts and then translates each excerpt into plain English. It’s a tad simplified but basically fair … and very jarring.
After posting the table, Kevin writes:
These are not the words of sane people. This is not “reform,” this is not “common sense,” and this is not “restraining government growth.” This is plain and simple madness and the people behind it have real influence.
Most people who oppose, or even question, most of that agenda are not deranged, either in the clinical sense or in the BDS sense suggested by Bush supporters. It isn’t about the person, and to a great extent it’s not even about the policies.
What is is about is the fact that the changes desired by the people who lead and control the GOP threaten to destroy some basic freedoms we have long taken for granted — and that threat has only grown with the disclosure by The New York Times last December of the government’s illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens. If those freedoms are destroyed, so, for all intents and purposes, is what we think of as America.
It’s easy for people who don’t pay close attention — i.e., most Americans — to think that what has gone on under this administration is just partisan politics as usual AND that both parties are equally guilty. It is also very easy for most Americans, having heard the radical right scream during the 1990s about “jackbooted government thugs” and black helicopters, to presume that this is more of the same, just coming from the Left this time.
In fact, however, many things that have gone on under this administration are NOT just politics as usual: They are actual, demonstrable assaults on our basic freedoms, not just the kind of suspicion and paranoia that was batted around during the Clinton years.
And both parties aren’t equal in this regard. Only one party is trying to destroy democracy, the rule of law and the very fabric of our system of politics and government: the Republicans. From lying about WMDs in Iraq to torturing prisoners, from suppressing voter registration to suppressing scientific findings because they’re politically inconvenient, from propagandizing their own citizens to buying votes on the House floor, that’s what the top, at least, of the Republican Party in America is doing today. You can say a lot of true and unflattering things about the Democrats, but right now “They’re trying to destroy the country!” isn’t one of them.
This is where Bush Derangement Syndrome comes in.
On Jan. 29, 2003, the writer and blogger Teresa Nielsen Hayden wrote in the comments of her blog, “I deeply resent the way this administration makes me feel like a nutbar conspiracy theorist.” The phrase resonated with so many people that she’s selling t-shirts and tote bags imprinted with it.
That resentment is what so many conservatives and national media types are mistaking for Bush Derangement Syndrome.
Many Americans are angry about what this administration has done, and threatens to do yet, to this country. But here’s an important qualification: They’re not just angry over policy differences, even though some of those differences (e.g., torture, warrantless wiretapping) are pretty damned important. They are angry because the Republican Party is trying to destroy the very underpinnings of our democracy. They are angrier still that it is turning the United States into that which the United States has fought wars to oppose. And they are angriest of all because they believe that the only way to fully grasp what our government is doing in this day and age is to presume corruption and bad faith on the part of the highest leaders of our country.
And you know what? I can see where they’re coming from. I was around and old enough to be paying attention during Watergate. Watergate was bad, make no mistake. But this is much, much worse.
So that anger that Hayden expresses resonates with many, many Americans. (The e-mailer who prompted the Josh Marshall post I linked to above said of the change in Marshall’s tone, “I really am angry about the loss of a worldview and approach that I valued.” But he also made clear he blamed Bush, not Marshall.) It comes to underlie what they think and how they express it, and it is perhaps more visible in the blogosphere than anywhere else. And yet it is too often taken by Bush supporters, and, less understandably and less forgivably, by the national media, as mere personal animosity toward Bush, perhaps leavened with routine differences on policy — in other words, “politics as usual.”
It is not. It is the righteous anger of Americans who love America, who see quite clearly how the government is turning America into what this country once spent blood and treasure to fight and who, for a variety of reasons, are almost powerless to do anything about it.
Bush supporters dismiss such Americans as victims of Bush Derangement Syndrome. In fact, in clear defiance of unimpeachable poll numbers, they dismiss them as “radicals.”
But for many Americans, the real radicals are the people running the government now. For them, Judge Anna Diggs Taylor’s ruling this past week in the NSA warrantless-wiretapping case, stacked atop the Supreme Court’s June ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, only adds judicial imprimatur to what they have increasingly, and resentfully, come to realize: Our country is in the hands of those who would destroy what is greatest about it.
And, finally, they believe that if you doubt that claim after all that America has seen during the past six years, then you, my friend, are the one who’s deranged.
Now you can agree or disagree as you see fit. But you owe them the courtesy of engaging them on their terms instead of calling them silly-assed names.