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Evil Senators Are Nothing New

Brad DeLong makes several very good points in response to my post about Senator Rick Santorum. Of course he is right that it is silly to treat Santorum's vileness as some sort of aberration in an institution that brought us Joe McCarthy. And there is never a shortage in the Senate of members whose political trade is in hate (e.g., all the signers of the "Southern Manifesto" of 1956), as well as a few at any given time whose moral sense or critical judgment are, shall we say, underdeveloped.

Further, the respect and decorum of the Senate can sometimes hold people back from saying things that need to be said. For example, in the confirmation hearings for John Ashcroft to be Attorney General, even while 43 Senators did the unimaginable thing and opposed him, even his opponents, in commenting on Ashcroft's blocking Ronnie White's nomination to be a judge, were careful to say, "Ashcroft's not a racist," while in fact, I'm pretty sure that a good many of them had ample reason to believe that Ashcroft was and is very much a racist.

Still, Joe McCarthy was not in the leadership of the Senate, and what paralyzed his colleagues from acting against him was their fear that he had some connection to the American people, and they couldn't stand up to him until someone else had, in this case Army counsel Joseph Welch. Santorum, on the other hand, has been chosen by his party and shapes the culture of the Senate itself.

I also agree with DeLong that the big change is in the alignment of ideological interests with party. Liberals who whine about Zell Miller fail to recognize that he's now basically the one and only Southern Democrat who might as well be a Republican. Even a couple decades ago, there were many more: Richard Shelby was a Democrat until 1994, for example. That did make for much more complicated cross-party alliances, such as the "Conservative Coalition" of Southern Dems and Northern and Western Republicans that could generally control Congress through the 1970s.

But it was a heady experience in the mid-90s to sit in the staff seats behind the dais of the Senate Finance Committee, and watch Senators Moynihan, Chafee, Pryor, Danforth, Bradley, Durenberger, Rockefeller, and others work together, sometimes with fierce disagreements, and in ever-shifting coalitions, but always with enormous respect for one another's views. I don't think sitting behind Max Baucus, Chuck Grassley and Don Nickles today is quite the same experience, even where they sometimes agree. And I think Santorum's attitude is both cause and symptom of that changed culture.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 18, 2004 | Permalink


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Well, this may be only tangentially related, but Senator Santorum's legions of fans are often drawn to this website: http://www.spreadingsantorum.com/ -- seemingly related to the Senator's kind and gentle nature, which the Decembrist has so aptly noted.

Posted by: Jane Faynton | Jan 18, 2004 4:15:44 AM

The Decembrist'observations about the collapse of civility in the Senate and specifically the behavior of Rick Santorum are important. Reactionary and racist politics (McCarthy, Helms, etc.) are bad enough but when the Senate becomes uncivil ("empty suit" lanuage, for example) it shifts from political debate to brawl, and the public turns off. For a party that has everything to gain by a cynical, disengaged public and the resulting reduced participation by traditionally under-participating constituencies, this bevior amounts to a voter suppression tactic.

Posted by: Meg Gage | Jan 18, 2004 10:34:35 AM

I'd be interested if in addition to civility, you think there has been a decline in intellectual talent in the Senate. The Senators you mention include some true heavyweights. There is still Robert Byrd but few of the recent electees on either side of the aisle impress me as a Moynihan, Bradley, Scoop Jackson, or Howard Metzenbaum (I'm sure there are some conservatives in this category but they temporarily escape me).

And then if you agree that there has been a decline in the talent level of senators, is that related to the decline in civility?

Posted by: Stuart | Jan 18, 2004 1:30:17 PM

You might be interested in reading Roger's thoughts on civility.

Posted by: ARON | Jan 18, 2004 1:45:04 PM

Computer security recourse: :Secure Root:

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