Copyright 1994 by Paul Starr.

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Preferred Citation: Paul Starr, "The Undertow," The American Prospect No. 18 (Summer 1994): 6-9.

The Undertow

Paul Starr

As the 1990s began, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. argued that America was due for a new era of affirmative government in keeping with the cycle of liberal and conservative periods that runs through our history. Uncannily, Bill Clinton's election came right on schedule, roughly 90 years after Theodore Roosevelt became president, 60 years after Franklin Roosevelt, and 30 years after John F. Kennedy. But if Clinton benefited from a change in the political tides (and it is still an open question whether he really has), he now faces a powerful undertow that threatens his ability to lead. By the undertow I mean the current of deep distrust, of suspicion of evil purposes and hidden crimes, that has emerged from the margins of political respectability to become the everyday language of the press and political debate.

Although Clinton's critics say the problems he faces are of his own making, the undertow has not struck him alone. The frenzy of suspicion that hit the presidency in 1994 hit the Congress years earlier. For several decades, opinion surveys have registered a decline of public confidence in nearly all our institutions. That sour mood has now turned positively rancid and created an environment where the "paranoid style in American politics," as Richard Hofstadter once called it, can become the subtext of Wall Street Journal editorials and the evening news and set much of the tone of public life.

Clinton might be less vulnerable to the undertow if he were buoyed by stronger organization from below. During the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the sixties, the force of change came not only from elected leaders but from broad movements of reform that reshaped the national agenda and mobilized the participation of groups who previously had little role or influence. There are no comparable movements today, certainly not to the left of the president, which could both challenge and support him and thereby, if only indirectly, help him govern from the center. Furthermore, many of the older institutions inherited from earlier movements, such as labor and civil rights, have undergone a long and deep erosion and cannot offset the mobilized resistance to change from the right.

Other political realities also increase Clinton's vulnerability to doubt. The overhang of the structural deficit from the Reagan years has left him only narrow room for new initiatives; he has pledged first to bring down the deficit, and he has done so but received little credit for it. Meanwhile, people want to see results, and it is hard to convince them that change is real when change so often takes the form of pilot programs. Clinton's political leverage is also limited because of his own narrow victory, the narrowness of his majorities in Congress, and the prospect of further erosion of those majorities at the mid-term elections--the mere anticipation of which has stiffened Republican opposition.

Thus, Clinton's vulnerability is structural. He is trying to pursue an ambitious agenda in a time of tight fiscal and political constraints. The ambitious agenda earns him enemies and energizes the opposition; the need to compromise, to phase in and scale back initiatives, creates disappointment and confusion among friends and reinforces doubts that he can keep his word.

Partly as a result, there is a stronger mobilization of the passions today on the right than on the left. Turn on talk radio and you can hear the voices of angry men (and they are disproportionately men), bitter about social and cultural changes over the past several decades that they believe have come at their expense. Much of that anger is now directed at the president and Mrs. Clinton. Her symbolic role in the mind of the opposition is unmistakable; the gender tensions that have been boiling for two decades have now spilled on to the presidency. Some on the far right are as unreconciled to the results of the 1992 election as they are to women's equality, and on both fronts they seem bent on staging what amounts to a cultural coup d'etat.

The link between this angry, unreconciled opposition and the undertow of suspicion affecting the Clinton presidency is direct. A hard core of Clinton haters generated the Paula Jones lawsuit and serves as rumor central for an endless string of allegations, such as stories that Vincent Foster was murdered. This effort would have had little success, however, if it did not intersect with the new dynamics of the media. There used to be a clear line between the tabloid and the mainstream press. Thanks to intense media competition and the loss of traditional standards of journalistic self-restraint, that line has now practically been erased. The networks have created one tabloid TV magazine after another, often anchored by the same people who anchor the evening news; and the evening news broadcasts themselves (particular on CBS) have acquired the same tone of breathless innuendo. With more broadcast outlets, the appetite has increased for scandal-mongering and sensationalism. I would not have thought that anything would make me nostalgic for television as it once was, but the old network news operations, for all their faults, had an ethic of editorial responsibility that is disappearing.

It is now almost a ritual of our culture first to elevate and celebrate personalities, then to humiliate and destroy them. Fame is an incitement to investigative reporting and its tabloid imitation, and the art of biography has become the continuation of tabloid exposure by other means. Today, if a biographer lacks sources for dialogue or events, no problem: he can make them up, and if the subject is a Kennedy or others in the public spotlight, so much the worse for them. We have become so used to reading about what public figures might feel or might think that we scarcely notice that much of what passes for psychological insight even in the high-tone press is no more than a respectable form of insinuation. Of course, old-fashioned insinuation is also respectable, if the Wall Street Journal editorial page is any indication. Character assassination (which the Journal's editorialists have made their speciality) is now not only sport, as Vincent Foster said in his suicide note; it carries no risks for the assassins. Who in America has lately paid any penalty for making false and vicious charges about someone in public life? The Supreme Court has reduced the potential costs of falsehood effectively to zero, while the payoff in self-promotion, not to mention movie rights, can be highly attractive. You do not have to be a believer in pure economic rationality to see that any society that sets the incentives so sharply in favor of the accuser will be awash in accusations about the prominent.

That the charges so often have a sexual character is also symptomatic of our time. In the age of Geraldo and Oprah, there are no inhibitions against public disclosure; shame has ceased to be a deterrent. Ceremonial degradation, often self-degradation, has become entertainment, and what better subject for entertainment than sexual exposes. What charges of secret subversive associations were to the Cold War, charges of private sexual misconduct have become in our day. The term "sexual McCarthyism" is exact. Reputations are contaminated, often without any possibility of the charges being disproved. And those who must wrestle in the mud, even if they ultimately prevail, still get mud-stained. Paula Jones says the man who is now president of the United States commited degrading acts in private. Since no one else was present (if an encounter took place at all), her charges can never be corroborated. Nor is it easy for the president to prove a negative. An assassin could not hope to strike with so little risk.

I do not claim to know the truth about the president's inner character, but I know that something has changed about the character of our public life. In the past, opponents seem to have observed limits to how far they would take personal attacks on a president. It is interesting to speculate whether our country would have been better served if Presidents Jefferson, Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Kennedy--all of whom are generally still revered as among the greatest in our history--had been forced to answer in public or in court the charges of sexual misconduct levelled against them; or if a special prosecutor had been appointed to probe Lyndon Johnson's early business deals after he ascended to the presidency. No president has ever before faced legal proceedings, or even an official investigation, regarding his conduct prior to becoming president. The reason is not that they all led blameless lives but that political conflict took place within certain bounds. The bounds have now been breached, with little thought to the long-run effects on political civility.

Clinton, of course, may yet ride out the undertow; his fortitude and tenacity are astonishing. According to the polls, wide majorities do not believe his conduct prior to becoming president is relevant to a judgment about his performance in office. As of May, he continued to enjoy a better than 50 percent approval rating. That, however, was roughly 15 to 20 points off where his predecessors stood at comparable points in the business cycle--a measure of what the undertow has thus far cost him. If he is forced to defend himself in court in either the Paula Jones or Whitewater cases, it could cost him far more.

What the undertow has cost the country, no one yet can measure. Politics and public life in America are becoming too dangerous, not just for the politicians, but for the health of democracy. The undertow doesn't just threaten Clinton personally; it is thwarting the changes that the American people voted for in 1992, including the very reforms that would help restore confidence in public remedy. What the president's opponents failed to stop in the elections, they are now trying to stop through different means by creating a crisis of presidential legitimacy. This coup must fail.