Saturday, February 5, 2011

Throw the Bums Out: Negative Campaigning and the Deterioration of the Electorate

Of course a few political dramas have already happened since the election, but I've been thinking a lot about it and the dynamics of our political culture. I'm not going to pick apart the campaigns, or analyze the results and say it's a mandate, or it's not a mandate, or what the lessons are to be learned politically from the recent midterm elections. What I'm interested in are the lessons we can learn philosophically from the 2010 midterms, and from that point the practical implications can reveal themselves.

In my reading and listening to some analysis, and talking and thinking about the elections, I've had some revelations that I hope can help move our political culture toward a new place and begin rebuilding our national dialogue into something constructive instead of the fractious mess it's become.

Negative campaign ads have become a major fixture in politics over the past generation. There was a time when national campaign ads were halting, low budget affairs not much more sophisticated than the proverbial high school campaign speech. Those days are long gone, however, and since the advent of cable, the internet, and the 24 hour on demand news cycle, it takes a lot more than a talking head in front of a blue screen to get anyone's attention.

Enter negative campaign ads. They're sensational, attention grabbing, and seem to draw out the differences between candidates. Of course they're often also ludicrous, untruthful, and focused on irrelevancies like the Rand Paul "Aqua Buddha" controversy. Adding fuel to the already enormous fire, the Citizen's United decision handed down earlier this year struck down prohibitions on corporations (either for or non-profit) and unions issuing "electioneering communications", opening the floodgates and resulting in huge increases in political spending and advertising, much of it negative.

So, during the heat of a campaign, the electorate is treated to a non-stop onslaught of ads which basically say "do anything in the world except vote for that guy." There is less and less substance, less and less of "vote for me because", and more and more "not that guy". Such intense negativity prevents the development of constructive ideas about how we might address our myriad problems (deteriorating environment, high and persistent unemployment, stagnant wages, outdated infrastructure, poor public schools, mushrooming debt), and "we the people" are left with lots of resentful energy but very little actual information about which candidate would most reflect our values. This kind of climate not only breaks down our ability to discuss and decide issues thoughtfully, but it leads to a high level of dissatisfaction and distrust in government itself. Thus, in every election we "throw the bums out", and when those bums don't seem to be doing their job, we throw them out to make room for the next round.

At the same time, something interesting has happened with political strategy. The Republicans, playing to what they saw as their base, energized that "base" so well that a whole new group of folks has gotten involved in politics, blossoming into the Tea Party movement. Meanwhile (New) Democrats have been busy courting "swing" voters, trying to win over those elusive centrists who can never seem to make up their minds. Both strategies have led to electoral victories, leaving the pundits to argue endlessly over which strategy is better for a particular campaign. However, both strategies have also resulted in the two major parties losing their way philosophically, and neither party any longer seems to stand for anything much. This apparent lack of a strong belief system, a set of values which will not be compromised, has not only eroded the public's confidence but also damaged the ability of elected officials to govern and make policy.

This should, perhaps, come as no surprise. We have recently entered not only into a new century but a new millennium, which is often heralded by chaos and unrest. With the economic system having come dangerously close to collapse, and the long term survival of the natural environment as we know it in question, everything seems to be up for grabs. All these thoughts were roiling in my head when my mother sent me this article, about the drama of the baby boomers and how they visit it upon the rest of us. This sense of everything being up for grabs is not new: the peace and justice movements of the 60s and 70s, led by some of the same people now battling in the halls of Congress, led to things like Roe v. Wade, the Civil Rights Act and the desegregation of schools. But one person's hard won victory is another person's devastating loss, and though many of us have thought of those battles as over and done, some of the folks who lost back then are back on the political stage demanding a do-over. The baby boomers argued bitterly over the meaning and direction of our United States of America back in their college days not only with their parents, but with each other, and now I believe we're witnessing those college arguments come back to life. Since the baby boom generation has come of age, though instead of playing out in the streets they're playing out on the radio waves, on television, and in the halls of Congress

So what's the answer to ending this absurd drama? I believe there is a very simple, yet difficult solution. Be principled, but kind. Stop reacting instantly to everything we see and hear. Take a step back. Each of us needs to think clearly about our own principles, to research the issues and find our own way through the muck, and to know and stand in our own values. Don't worry so much about the other guy, and quit working on layers and layers of assumptions. Instead, be clear about what's important for you and work to make your own vision a reality. Join groups doing work you admire, and bring your individual influence to bear with your elected officials. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that things will just automatically change because we as individuals begin to talk clearly with each other and search for solutions instead of endlessly dramatizing the problems. But I am suggesting that a democracy is only as strong as its citizenry; we are the ones who will find lasting and peaceful solutions to our problems. This is the path toward  the "more perfect union" we seek.

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