A friend of mine once asked me whether I believe in God –– as if my answer would forever place me in one of her two categories of friends. I offered my usual waffle of an answer: Yes, because if He exists, I don’t want to get on his bad side. And yes because, if He doesn’t, who cares?
Religion like politics is one of those things friends shouldn’t discuss too much. As this year’s midterm election demonstrates, it has created a great divide in the American electorate. At the heart of the Tea Party movement is the belief the Constitution is a God given declaration of human rights, and at the center of liberal thought is the concept that the Constitution is a living document modified over the ensuing 211 years – by 27 amendments – to accommodate the growth of our nation.
While it may be true some of the founding fathers were divinely inspired, it is also true they were inspired with ideas for running an agrarian nation where only 38,818 people voted in the first presidential election. Our politicians today may not measure up in mind or morals, but we should cut them some slack since the problems they face are far more complex in a nation where 122 million people went to the polls in 2008.
We like to speak of a right wing and left wing in American politics: Republican and Democratic parties that contend for seats in Congress based on certain core principles. The Republicans generally identify themselves with limited government, lower taxes and spending only for the common defense. The Democrats, by contrast, take pride in using the government to do good, expanding the social safety net to provide social security for the elderly, medical care to the poor and equal opportunities for minorities to participate in a society once closed off to them.
Personalities vs Philosophies
In presidential election years, these principles tend to get embodied in the party’s presidential candidate––and overshadowed by the voters’ desire to choose their president based on character, demeanor and readiness for office (i.e. who do we “like” more.). In mid-term elections, the two streams of thought clash more directly in hundreds of little skirmishes across the political battlefield for House, Senate and statehouse seats.
The combatants are rarely as charismatic as their party standard bearers. (Nor do they have much actual power once they are in office.) Many are running for office for the first time, buoyed by their own fortunes or confidence that their business success will translate into the public sector. With no public record to speak of, they brandish their philosophy like it’s the sword of an avenging angel, stirring their followers with false claims––Obama is a Muslim–– and not paying any particular price for it in a media sliced into partisan factions, decimated by budget cuts, and caught up in a 24/7 news cycle where immediacy trumps truth.
In the inspired minds of the founding fathers, the clash of ideas at election time was supposed to tease out the best of both philosophies, sharpen the cboices ahead and favor the proponent who could convince a majority of his fellow citizens of the soundness of his argument. But, as I said, that was a long, long time ago.
Attitudes not Issues
This year’s midterm elections are not about anything, really, except anger and resentment. Things are not going well in America and somebody has to pay. Republicans and Democrats are trying to tap into this wellspring of ill will and, by all accounts, Republicans are faring far better at it: not by offering solutions (“Cut spending, don’t raise taxes” isn’t a solution; it’s a placebo.) but by lobbing more mud across the TV airwaves faster than the Democrats can lob it back.
Yes, this year is probably the lowest America politics has sunk into mudslinging since the late 1800’s. The venom and malice behind this year’s political spots has put off even the veteran political consultant Don Rose. “Not to sound like the Claude Rains character in ‘Casablanca’ who was shocked, shocked to find gambling going on in Rick’s Café,” he wrote this week in the Chicago Daily Observer, “but even yours truly, who has made a lot of political commercials—including many negative and nasty—is stunned by the overwhelming quantity and intensity of negative spots running wall to wall on broadcast and cable TV.”
In the usual political campaign, candidates will spend roughly 72 percent of their budget on radio and television advertising. The short 30-second spots aren’t good for much other than branding the candidate – or the opponent – as a hero (family man, war veteran, frequent nursing home visitor) or chump (evil-looking, black & white enemy of children). But if you are running for the first time, they are essential for name recognition.
Federal election law has kept most of these within the bounds of civility by requiring candidates to tag their commercials: “I’m so and so, and I approve this message.” The Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court last January, however, has changed the rules of the game. By a 5-4 margin, the court overturned the federal ban on corporate political spending and unleashed a flood of additional negative ads on the airwaves with only a hint of where they are coming from.
It is not unusual, as a result, to see four ads stacked one on top of another, three of them decrying Alexi Giannoulias’s “mob ties” and paid for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Karl Rove’s Crossroads America and The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee – and then the a fourth, a warm and fuzzy portrait of his opponent Mark Kirk, paid for by the candidate himself.
Politics this year has left the realm of discourse. Now it’s just the brute force of money vs. money pushing photoshop-ed caricatures of the opposition into the public consciousness.
We are living in an era where there are two parallel universes in politics that never seem to intersect. Republicans spin around the vortex of the Tea Party movement talking about how President Obama is taking the country down the path to socialism. Higher taxes, more government regulation, environmental controls – it’s all part of a plot to take away your freedom. Democrats end the war in Iraq, pass landmark health care reform and stop a cratering economy, then scatter to the winds when it comes time to defend their actions.
Neither side is talking to the other. Campaign debates are just forums for candidates to reiterate the same negative message they spent millions airing in ads. No one wants to get too specific about what is good or bad in the health reform bill, which parts of the stimulus package worked or didn’t, because the public doesn’t want to hear it. “Just fix the problem” is a jaded, but legitimate reaction to a campaign where there has been altogether too much jibber-jabber.
It’s fair to say the next two years will be challenging for the President and Congress. The economy is by no means cured, Afghanistan continues to defy both our military and political strategies. And coping with long term deficits will require hard decisions, and compromises, in both parties – none of which were discussed in this campaign for fear of alienating one voter group or another. .
Once Election Day has passed, the pundits can return to Washington to watch the more organized sport of party leaders setting their agendas and passing/or obstructing the other guy’s. The first term congressmen and senators elected next Tuesday may well tip the balance of power in the House and Senate, but don’t count on them for much else.
They are, after all, the “least worst” option in this god awful mess of an election, men and women who took the low road into public office and alienated all but their most fervent supporters along the way. Not the most promising base for building a new America.