Our Presidential Atmosphere Continues to Darken

I wrote this three years ago, and re-read it today. Painful to see that in retrospect I should have been much more pessimistic about where we were headed as a country.


Every time I see a photo of President George H.W. Bush (Here he is being a witness at a same-sex marriage ceremony) I feel nostalgia for the time when he was in The White House. Even though I suspect history will judge him as a fairly successful President, it’s less so his presidency that I miss than the way the country felt about it.

If you are young you may not believe this, but there was a time when you could have political conversations with strangers (e.g., on a bus, airplane, train, at a bar) with minimal risk of your interlocutor immediately launching into a quasi-violent denunciation of whoever was President that lambasted not only his policies, but also his moral character and his legitimacy as a political leader. G.H.W. Bush was the last President whom you could you just casually talk to strangers about. They might like or dislike his policies, but their head would not explode at the mention of his name.

The poison that has been with us for over a generation since is that a large proportion of the country has regarded the President as not just a terrible leader but also a stain on our national character who cheated his way into the office he is now disgracing. Clinton, G.W. Bush and Obama have not just been opposed, but loathed and viewed as illegitimate sources of authority by a plurality of Americans. Such blind, distorting rage makes productive political debate almost impossible, and I wonder whether we can ever go back to the national sensibility about Presidents that we used to have. I am optimistic or pessimistic about our prospects depending on what causal theory seems more plausible to me that day.

The optimistic causal theory is that this is a generational phenomenon. George H.W. Bush was the last President from a generation that had a strong sense of E pluribus unum. Its members also believed that while you were not required to like the President, you had a duty to accept his political legitimacy because it derived from the voters of your democratic society. The boomers who followed GHWB’s generation had deeper political disagreements with each other that overpowered their sense of e pluribus unum. They are still fighting those bitter battles today (If it’s a Bush vs. Clinton race again in 2016, the 1960s culture war issues will no doubt be refought for the 1000th time in some form). The boomers were less likely than their parents to believe in the concepts of honorable disagreement and a loyal opposition. You agreed or you were a (insert appropriate character assassination here). If a generational change in political attitudes and tactics is what created our quarter century run of Presidential Derangement Syndrome, then this fever will break as the boomers fade from political life.

The pessimistic causal theory is that after the “big sort” within the political parties, the arrival of niche media that tells everyone that their political opinions are facts, and Internet-based technologies that allow unprecedented levels of insularity among like-minded people, we will never return to a time when most Americans said things like “I don’t agree with him at all, but I respect the fact that he is the elected leader of our country” and “I never liked his policies, but I always thought he was a good man”. If those sensibilities about the person we choose to lead our country have truly been consigned to history, it’s a terrible loss for our national political culture.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

6 thoughts on “Our Presidential Atmosphere Continues to Darken”

  1. I wonder whether African Americans generally think of Bush as a good man, despite his Willie Horton ad and his nomination of Clarence Thomas. And I wonder whether women who have been sexually harassed generally think of Bush as a good man, despite the charges of his groping women and his failure to withdraw the nomination of Clarence Thomas after Anita Hill came forward.

    On Bush’s groping, see https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/12/george-h-w-bush-death-inappropriate-touching.html

  2. It’s not just the president’s own generation that creates the atmosphere in which his presidency plays out. By the time someone becomes president, most Baby Boomers were well past their youth (30’s and 40’s, with a few stragglers in their late 20’s). So I’m not sure that looking at any purported difference between the WWII generation and the Boomers (and where did the intervening Silents go?) explains the change in public civility between the George H. W. Bush and Clinton eras. Something that might bear consideration, however, is the timing of the rise of conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh to national prominence. Limbaugh began his political broadcasting in California in 1984, mid-Reagan. His show went national in 1988, the year Bush I was elected.

  3. Sorry, incompetent self-editing: “By the time someone becomes president, younger generations are well into adulthood. When Bush became president, most Baby Boomers were well past their youth. . . .” By the way, wasn’t there once an “edit” button?

  4. My reading of history is, perhaps, a bit less optimistic than yours. Many, many people were outraged by FDR’s policies, which translated into the “traitor to his class” argument. Truman, likewise, was widely regarded as inept, although not as a blot on the national escutcheon. The corruption of Harding’s associates was legendary, even at the time. My sense is that the Eisenhower/Kennedy/(early) Johnson years were an episode of civility that became increasingly strained…

    1. We are not far apart on this at all. What I have been thinking lately (i.e., in the years after I wrote the above post) is that we should stop trying to explain the polarization and vehement hatred and no-nothingism of recent years because that is what most of human history has been. Instead we should try to explain those periods when we didn’t have those things. The Post War years in the US had a rare combination of a powerful external enemy who united people AND rising incomes domestically AND big growth in quality and quantity of life driven by amazing technological advancement. Maybe our species needs that confluence of forces or something like it to treat each other differently than we do these days.

    2. Another factor is the polarizing effect of President Barack Obama. Although by any objective standard he was the best and most dignified man to have held the Presidency since Lincoln regardless of what you think of his policies, he was still black by the peculiar standards of US racial classification. Pervasive American racism made a politician who constantly sought unity and bipartisanship a uniquely polarizing figure. Trump was able to capitalise on this legacy in 2016 by fanning the flames of racism, along with misogyny against Hillary Clinton. With Obama gone, the racism is subsiding, and the Democratic vote has recovered.

      The theory is no doubt too reductive. But the approval rate of Obama’s signature policy achievement, the ACA, has followed a track that suggests there is something in it. Obamacare is more popular without Obama.

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