New Vs. Old Guard

Jon Stewart can pretend all he wants that the point of his big rally Saturday was just for chuckles, or just to encourage a more reasonable, substantive and civil tone in American politics. The reality is that his own audience on the Mall had an additional agenda, and it was decidedly partisan and decidedly liberal. … It’s self-defeating and even delusional to think progressive policies are going to be achieved just by agitating nobly for a more positive style in politics. (more)

So why is the U.S. left suddenly so eager to emphasize its civility and maturity compared with the right?

In both primitive tribes and modern board rooms, incumbents play out a standard script when arguing with upstarts. When a new guard bids for more influence relative to an old, the new suggests the old is weak, corrupt, out of touch, and past their prime, while the old suggests the new is immature, inexperienced, unrealistic, and untried. The old guard tries to sound calm and reasonable and suggest things are ok, there’s no need for disruptive change, or perhaps that we can’t afford to change captains midstream in a crisis. The new guard will suggest a crisis, with problems getting worse until we change tact, or perhaps that only new leadership can take full advantage of new opportunities.

We are so habituated to expect these patterns that we use these arguments, and are persuaded by them, even when they are unlikely to apply. For example, in a modern two party political system, the party out of power is probably nearly as corrupt and mature as the party in power. Nevertheless, the out party will complain of corruption, while the in complains of immaturity.  The circle of autopilot-thought life continues.

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  • William H. Stoddard

    The article quotes Robert Frost’s witticism that “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.” But it doesn’t appear to me that that attitude is widespread among contemporary liberals. It’s more the case that they resolutely take their own side . . . while wearing the mask of impartiality. That’s just a particular strategy for taking the high ground in a debate.

    Do you know the old game of “conjugations”?

    I am firm.
    You are stubborn.
    He is pigheaded.

  • Ryan

    This is broadly persuasive but I take issue with the “suddenly” in your first sentence. Remember the whole “reality-based community” thing? That was 2004. There’s something structural here as well as cyclical.

    • M

      Ryan, the new guard claims that the incumbents are “out of touch” in Robin’s framework.

  • Big Dubya

    kind of reminds me of the Who song ‘…meet the new boss…same as the old boss…’

  • Jonathan

    It’s self-defeating and even delusional to think progressive policies are going to be achieved just by agitating nobly for a more positive style in politics.

    While I agree that it is likely that a large percentage of the attendees at this rally have a liberal bias, I disagree that the point of the rally was to get everyone to “calm down.” My support of the Rally to Restore Sanity was not because I believe that liberals, conservatives, libertarians, or authoritarians need to “calm down,” but because I believe one can fight for his agenda without referring to his opponents as Nazis, Marxists, baby-killers, fascists, terrorists, etc. unless they actually are.

    I am in full support of heated debate, arguments, rallies and/or marches. Does that mean that someone who supports a different fiscal policy than I should be tarred and feathered?

  • Jon Stewart is not “the left”. In fact, his mock-rally has been roundly criticized from the left for being too even-handed in its critiques of unreasonable rhetoric. Here for example, or here. So the basic premise of this post is flawed.

    But it is true that these days you hear more radical anti-government rhetoric from the right, whereas it used to come from the left.

  • The party seeking to make a primary issue of ‘civility’ invariably seeks to present itself as civility’s god-annointed umpire and enforcer. ‘Civility’ is the McCarthyite’s favored mask.

  • cournot

    mtraven makes the same tired old leftist claim. Because Stewart is not on the Far Left, that makes him not THE LEFT. He is definitely to the left of the American center, hence he is on The Left. Further, his rally wishes to suggest that the current uprising is “unreasonable” and immodest.

    wrt to the original post, Robin fails to note that the mainstream media amplifies the Left’s illusions by accepting the narrative (in both 1994 and 2010) that when the Right is the successful upstart that represents unjustified anger, and usually not a good tantrum at that. In contrast, 2008 was “righteous”, uplifting, necessary change, and a “good” revolution. Never mind that the anti-Bush rallies were much uglier and featured much more Hitler-Bush name-calling than the median Tea Party Rally. And let us not forget the viciousness of Acorn’s thugs. But no, the Left is never angry or unreasonable. It’s always the Right.

    The only saving grace of this self-delusion is the Left is always blindsided when they lose big.

    • I don’t think Robin wants his forum to degenerate into a pissing contest between left and right, and I’m not very interested in that either.

      It is interesting to me how partisans on both sides like to inflate the dangerousness of their opponents. The left has taken the head-stomping incident in Kentucky and ran with it, to suggest or imply that the Teabaggers in general are violent. And then there’s you above referring to “the viciousness of Acorn’s thugs”, despite the lack of existence of said thugs (not to mention that the organization is defunct).

      Even more generally, in any situation of conflict you’ll find those on both sides who want to heighten the differences and increase the hostility and polarization; and occasionally you can find others who are trying to cool tempers, build bridges, promote peaceful coexistence.

      Stewart was trying, in his comic’s way, to play the latter role, and his efforts should be appreciated for what they are.

      • kevin

        I don’t think Robin wants his forum to degenerate into a pissing contest between left and right, and I’m not very interested in that either.

        The left has taken the head-stomping incident in Kentucky and ran with it, to suggest or imply that the Teabaggers in general are violent.


        >pissing contest between left and right

        Wow. That’s a stunning lack of self-awareness, mtraven. Try coming back after you learn to refrain from using slurs against your hated enemies.

      • Michael Kirkland

        kevin: “teabaggers” is the nomenclature that movement introduced itself as, it’s not something anyone else put on them.

    • Michael Kirkland

      I’ll give you the Bush/Hitler point, but note that Stewart is calling those people out just as much as he is the teabaggers.

      I’m going to call a [Citation Needed] on “Acorn’s thugs.”

      • kevin

        I’m going to call a [citation needed] on Tea party people referring to themselves as “teabaggers”. Because, you know, they don’t. They call themselves “Tea Partiers”. If you’re too simple or too partisan to know that it is universally anti-tea party people who call them that, you really shouldn’t be commenting on the matter.

        Or anything else for that matter.

      • kevin

        I’m going to call a [citation needed] on Tea Partiers referring to themselves as teabaggers. Because, you know, they don’t. They call themselves Tea Partiers, as you would know if you actually read anything but partisan dreck.

        In the meantime, you should consider taking a back seat in discussions until you can refrain from using childish slurs.

  • S

    the party out of power is probably nearly as corrupt … as the party in power

    I suspect this may be less true in a parlimentary democracy, where the oposition has comparatively less power because all votes are on party lines and so bribing a member of the opposition is much less effective than bribing a memember of the government.

    When a new government is elected there are new ministers and it will take time for the new corrupt relationships (on an individual person to person level) to set themselves up. The more time a person is in a particular position of power the stronger these relationships can grow.

  • Unnamed

    Why do you say “suddenly”? Stewart’s high-minded tone and message of getting along despite differences is very similar to Obama’s persona during the 2008 election, or even during his big 2004 keynote speech.

    Liberals have been complaining for years that the political process in general, or the Republican party/conservative movement in particular, is filled with manufactured outrage, wild inaccuracies, and demonizing political attacks, with far too little sincere effort to describe issues accurately and get policies right. Tea Partiers are the latest manifestation, but previous complaints have focused on the Obama Muslim rumors, the Swift Boat vets, the idea that war opponents hate America or want the terrorists to win, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and so on.

  • I have to side with the people who’ve been saying the premise of this post is wrong. Liberals have been portraying themselves as the more reasonable party for a long time, since before they were in power.

    A couple hypotheses that haven’t been considered yet:

    (1) It may actually reflect reality. Until recently, I would have been hard-pressed to think of prominent liberal pundits promoting the sort of obvious falsehoods you get from an Ann Coulter or Glenn Beck.

    More recently, I’ve had the misfortune to have watched MSNBC a few times at the gym, and MSNBC seems to be trying very hard to make itself into a left-wing copy of Fox News. I doubt MSNBC would do what it does if conservatives hadn’t made crazy seem like a good idea.

    (2) The U.S. is a fairly conservative country relative to other rich countries. It’s also one where more people identify as conservative than identify as liberal. This may make conservatives less afraid of sounding crazy, and liberals more concerned to avoid offending anyone.

    Thus, conservatives are proudly conservative and talk about how “liberals” and “progressives” are evil, wheras liberals shun the word “liberal” and try to position themselves as the reaonable alternative to “right wing extremists.”

  • Lord

    The new guard is going to be terribly disappointed after they win and little changes, while the old guard will be surprised after they lose about how little changes. Le meme chose..

  • j r

    So why is the U.S. left suddenly so eager to emphasize its civility and maturity compared with the right?

    It’s partly because we are in the middle of a sea-change in the US left; a movement from “liberal” to “progressive.”

    Liberals were, and some still are, anti-authoritarian rabble-rousers. Progressives are defined by a certain squishy authoritarianism.

  • Status-anxious, striving citizen seeks to flatter self with his own ‘politer-than-the-rabble’ high-mindedness.

    Politician–seeking to ignite mutual flattery with citizenry–initiates emphasis on ‘the civility issue’, implicitly asserting his own civility-paragonhood.

    Citizen bites on hook.

    Politicians will play this ‘civility gambit’ when they think it will be of use. As a general rule, the more sanctimonious the politician, the more attractive the civility gambit will be.

    I don’t call myself ‘a progressive’ as it still has a certain Lincoln Steffens sound to it and also for its smug/moralistic odor.

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  • TheOtherDave

    This seems like a moderately testable question, actually.

    If we can define what class of statements we’re talking about (say, public statements by elected officials between 1990 and 2010, just to pick something simple… trying to figure out the boundaries of a set that includes Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart would likely be distractingly contentious) we can look at the ratio of “new-guard” utterances (e.g. calls for revolution) to “old-guard” utterances (e.g., calls for civility) to neither (e.g., policy proposals).

    If the OP is right, the OG/NG frequency should correlate well with majority/minority status, and not at all well with Republican/Democrat status. (Assuming this has some relationship to the “left”/”right” distinction discussed… or if not, then some other way of identifying whether the speaker is “left” or “right”. If we can’t even do that, then never mind.)

    Has this sort of thing been done?