Sour Grapes Poisoning the Well


In the weeks leading up to the Supreme Court decision ending the 2000 election, my brother, John Zogby, polled Democrats and Republicans, asking each whether or not they would respect the outcome of the contest and view as “legitimate” the presidency of either George W. Bush or Al Gore. Two-thirds of Democrats said that, despite their misgivings about the process, they would still respect the outcome and see Bush as the “legitimate” president. Less than one-third of Republicans said that they would respect Gore as “legitimate.”

Based on this finding, John expressed concern, at the time, that should Gore be declared the winner, Republicans would mount a rather strident opposition, doing their best to obstruct his presidency.

In any case, the Supreme Court ruled in Bush’s favor and Gore, ever the statesman, conceded, urging his supporters to unify the country. And so, despite hard feelings about the way the GOP had hounded Bill Clinton, almost derailing his presidency with endless investigations and an impeachment, and the ugliness and heat of the post-election drama, Democrats accepted the Bush presidency. While not supporting his entire agenda, some Democrats even gave Bush the votes he needed to pass controversial legislation on taxes, education, prescription drug reform, and then the Patriot Act and the war on Iraq.

After ten years as the dominant force in Congress, Republicans lost control of both houses in the 2006 election. And then, in 2008, their eight-year hold on the White House came to an end. Barack Obama’s victory, unlike the contests of 2000 and 2004, was neither close nor controversial. It was decisive. Nevertheless, it appears from their behavior, Republicans simply refuse to accept the fact that they have lost the White House and Congress. Their rhetoric is harsh and unyielding. In Congress, they have largely voted as a bloc against the new President’s agenda. More troubling, still, has been the degree to which extremist “non-elected” conservative commentators on television, radio and the internet, have irresponsibly attacked President Obama, raising concerns that they may be inciting dangerous fringe elements of the far right.

All of this was in evidence during the past week, first, with the publishing of the results of a Pew poll showing a deep partisan divide in support for the President. The poll found a gap of 61 points between Republican and Democratic approval ratings of President Obama’s job performance.

And then, on April 15th –” the deadline for Americans to file their tax returns –” there was a day of national anti-tax demonstrations. While these anti-tax rallies were not as massive as their organizers had hoped, the vitriol of the demonstrators made clear that this was far more than a tax protest. Many of the signs and slogans used by the demonstrators personally targeted the President. Some depicted Obama as a Marxist, a Nazi, a Muslim, or a “foreigner.” Others were just simply racist.

Also last week, a Department of Homeland Security report, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” came to light. One disturbing finding of the DHS assessment was that “rightwing extremists have capitalized on the election of the first African American president, and are focusing their efforts to recruit new members, mobilize existing supporters, and broaden their scope and appeal through propaganda, but they have not yet turned to attack planning.”

The claim by conservatives that they are innocent of incitement, does not hold up. Listening to the near-hysterical attacks on Obama, and the government in general, launched by the likes of radio’s Rush Limbaugh or Fox TV’s Glenn Beck, can be frightening.

And the argument that this polarization is the president’s fault, since it is he who is dividing the electorate, also has no foundation in fact. He is the president. He won the election, and is pursuing his agenda. This is what some conservatives can’t accept. And so, loosely translated, when they say Obama is a polarizing figure, what they appear to mean is “we are angry that he won, and even angrier that he’s acting like the president.”

This is the treatment that Gore would have received had he been declared the winner in 2001. It is poisoning the well of American politics, and as the DHS report warns, it may pose dangers in the future.