Whew! That was an ugly campaign. So now, may we return to a calmer, more courteous style of governance, just as a triumphant President Bush ("We have one country, one constitution, one future that binds us . . . ") has proposed? Yeah, right. The next four years in Washington promise to be uglier still.
Even with the Republicans in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, we can look forward to continued ideological acrimony, rhetorical stridency, partisan low blows, congressional discourtesy, an increasingly politicized judiciary and an ever-declining store of political courage. Already, the GOP claims a mandate, while Democrats deny it, and the bile flows on.
That everyone in Washington will still be at each other's throats is great news, because it's the logical and probably necessary consequence of something that really is wonderful -- a democracy that has grown ever deeper. It's precisely because so many more Americans now have a voice in the capital's affairs that the conduct of government has turned into the money-drenched free-for-all that pundits love to hate -- even as they egg it on. Democracy may look its ugliest when it is most alive.
Think of how Washington used to be. Decades ago, the city was famously a sleepy, Southern, genteel sort of place in which adversaries remained friends and politicians of antagonistic views socialized after hours. One summer evening in 1949, the Democratic vice president, Alben Barkley, and Republican Sen. Robert Taft -- known as "Mr. Conservative" -- harmonized on a few verses of "The Good Old Summertime" on social hostess Gwen Cafritz's back lawn on Foxhall Road, overlooking the capital. When partisan control of the House oscillated during the 1950s, incoming Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn let outgoing Republican Joe Martin stay in the Speaker's office in the Capitol when the Democrats regained a majority. He "let Joe keep his dignity," remembers Jim Wright, who later became a House speaker himself.
All this nice-nice was possible, however, for an unfortunate reason: because a small circle of people, mainly white men of compatible backgrounds and conventional views, controlled the federal government's affairs. "Washington was run by 25 people," recalls superlobbyist Tommy Boggs, who grew up around the Capitol, where both of his parents served in the House. The Boggses became famous for their annual garden party, where all the bigwigs in Washington came together in a single yard.
That world, happily, is dead and gone. If we're trying to spread democracy around the world, it's because we believe that the more people who participate in their nation's affairs, the better. By that measure, American political life has become ever stronger. What else, after all, was the history of the 20th century but a chronicle of group after group of excluded Americans -- Catholics, Jews, blacks, women, Latinos, Asian Americans, gays -- painfully claiming a place at the table? Yet another long-excluded (or self-excluded) group, evangelical Christians, proved crucial to last Tuesday's outcome. Almost everyone in American society has now acquired the legal right -- and the practical capacity -- to make themselves heard, though in disproportionate degrees.
At the same time, in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, power within the government has become steadily dispersed. The old political hierarchies have crumbled. A subcommittee chairman or an obstreperous bureaucrat or an incensed and wealthy interest group or even a newspaper editorialist can keep a proposal from becoming a reality.
This has given lobbyists their livelihood. A few decades back, Washington was home to just a few dozen lobbyists, customarily political cronies or prep school chums of the few people in charge. Now there are an estimated 20,000 lobbyists and a profusion of trade associations and interest groups whose representatives buttonhole hundreds or even thousands of decision-makers on behalf of everyone under the sun. No wonder money in politics has become the medium of common exchange, the engine of persuasion, the measure of desire. With money you can hire a lobbyist or donate to a campaign or buy time or space in the media -- anything to make yourself heard. Because the democratic process has opened so wide, money enables anyone to play.
And the burgeoning democracy is responsible for most of what civic purists despise about Washington. The more people there are shouting at once, the louder they must yell to make themselves heard. Technology has further turned up the volume. The cable television shows, with all those hours to fill, have created an echo chamber that -- as Jon Stewart tried to tell Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala in their snippy confrontation last month on CNN's "Crossfire" -- exalts conflict for conflict's sake. This may yield a thoroughly argued solution -- or an impasse that reflects the public's will.
The Internet has added an utterly unsupervised -- and democratizing -- route into the public discourse. Anyone can sit at a keyboard and spread or receive information. Bloggers can smuggle new evidence into the debate, skirting the elites -- as CBS News recently learned to its horror -- and bolstering the quality of what is known. People can organize themselves into political clans -- look at the presence of groups like Moveon.org -- or any individual able to draw an audience can have an impact. How could democracy be purer?
The cacophony and chaos are annoying, to be sure, and have coarsened the political discourse in Washington and elsewhere. As the circle of democratic participation steadily expands, from dozens to thousands to millions, the depth of knowledge that goes into decision-making is bound to grow shallower. This late and unlamented election campaign catered to the shallowest, the most fearful -- the most human -- in human nature.
But what else does the proliferation of pollsters and sound-bite artists and image-meisters mean except that the opinions of the citizenry count more than anything? A partisan divisiveness in Washington means that important parts of the electorate care deeply about the outcome, that a consensus hasn't been reached about something that matters. How should we fix Social Security? How constrained should abortion rights be? Strongly felt values and real interests are at stake. A stalemate may be exactly what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they instituted checks and balances to force deliberativeness and restrain a slim majority's passion. Even after two centuries or more, who can complain?
Anyway, why waste your breath? Grousing about the political tone in Washington is not only wrongheaded but also useless. The incumbent president's father, in his inaugural address in 1989, warned of the orneriness that had already taken hold. "They didn't send us here to bicker," he said. Even his kinder, gentler presidency didn't help. (Remember Clarence Thomas's "high-tech lynching"?) Since then, under every permutation of power-wielding in Washington -- a divided government and ones exclusively under Democratic and then Republican control -- the bickering has deepened into trench warfare. A morally challenged president clashed with an ideologically brash Congress and was impeached. A second President Bush promised to be a uniter, not a divider, and proved to be anything but. The word "hater" became an accepted suffix to a president's name. Last week's pleas for unity and civility by both Bush and John Kerry were lovely to listen to and, as soon as the first point of dissension arises, sure to be ignored.
In the past dozen years, Washington has experienced a single stretch of political comity -- after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It takes unspeakable tragedy, in other words, for the nation's political system to overcome or suppress its acrimony. We must be careful what we wish for.
Given the raw emotions of the campaign mercifully ended, political peace isn't at hand. The orneriness is here to stay. We should celebrate it. Or at least get used to it.
Author's e-mail: BSolomon@nationaljournal.com