Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Slingin' Mud

“A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”
- H.L. Mencken

I agree with the Sage of Baltimore on this one. The more politicians and would-be politicians I meet, the more I favor having a monarchy. As a reporter, one of my much-dreaded tasks is campaign coverage. Every year, around the start of September, they creep forth from the woodwork, begging bowls in hands, holding press conferences and sending out press releases.
The candidates.
Both the incumbents and challengers want the same thing: to get elected. How they achieve this is twofold:
1. campaign hard;
2. distort like crazy.
Both the Democrats and Republicans are guilty of this. Why do they find it too difficult to be candid and honest with voters and hold a civil campaign? I don’t think they believe the voters are stupid; they only treat the voters like they’re stupid. Every October my mailbox is filled with colorful mailers from candidates and political parties degrading, berating and distorting the opposition. Over the years I’ve seen plenty of these mailers and unlike a majority of Americans who simply toss them into the garbage, I read them. See, I want to understand, as a writer, the Machiavellian tricks of persuasion and how to reduce your opponent from a flesh and blood human into deconstructed bits of ideology and concepts.
For example, Democrats are liberals. Liberals are bad because they (liberally) tax you and spend. They also (liberally) bloat the size of government. Liberals are also against religion and are proponents of abortion, gay marriage and legalizing marijuana. So, if you vote for a Democrat, you’ll get a stoned, atheistic homosexual abortionist.
Republicans are conservatives. Conservatives are bad because they conserve things, like money. They only want their rich friends to have tax breaks while the middle class and everyone below that margin pays taxes. Conservatives, despite their name, want to glut governmental programs and liquidate the ghettoes, building condominiums they can sell as active adult communities. Conservatives don’t like gays, nor the environment, and have a hard-on for wars providing their kids don’t fight in them. If you elect a Republican, you’ll be forced into an interment camp where you’ll become a Southern Baptist and have fun crucifying members of the American Civil Liberties Union while singing Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” until your tonsils bleed with rapture.
How did it get to be this way? Was there ever such a thing as a “gentleman’s campaign”?
In 1934, former Socialist-turned-Democrat Upton Sinclair (yes, the very same muckraking writer whose The Jungle forced the government to reform the meat-packing industry) ran for governor of California. Sinclair’s opponent, the incumbent Republican Governor Frank Merriam, had the backing of California’s conservatives and with it, money. The Republicans spent millions to defeat Sinclair, who they portrayed as a dangerous Socialist.
Sinclair’s big idea – a movement he called End Poverty In California (EPIC) – would have established cooperative farms to put the unemployed to work. Though Sinclair met President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the White House did not endorse the candidate and preferred to stay out of the race. Some Democrats fielded a third-party candidate into the race.
The Republican money machine, backed by the film studios who were largely conservative – produced films designed to sway public opinion. The films depicted Sinclair supporters as foreign, Russians and migrants, and showed scores of unemployed rushing for California’s borders if Sinclair won. Print ads decried Sinclair for spreading Bolshevism into California. Though many of the ads were propaganda and distortion, the campaign showed the power of film and mass media to persuade voters. Sinclair lost with 37 percent of the vote, while Merriam garnered 48 percent and Raymond Haight of the Commonwealth Party took 13 percent.
We are the descendants of Merriam’s campaign – negative attack ads, cheap shots and mud slinging. When the electorate demand issues, candidates give them bullshit.
Bullshit, they think, is easy to digest. Rally around the flag. Don’t question our ability to lead. The queers are bad. Vote for us.
Harnessing a mass media that is both liberal and conservative (it all depends on which corporation you like), candidates shell out money, hire consultant firms and bash the shit out of each other.
If people don’t ridicule negative campaigns, the campaigns will just stay negative. Millions will be spent on snarky popularity contests instead of substantive campaigns where candidates tell the voters why they should elect them and what their vision is for the future.
Instead, the candidates get lazy. They hide behind handlers and press secretaries. They sink into shallow water and become superficial; mere empty suits and smiles on a placard. This breeds cynicism, mistrust and cheapens the political process.
I’m not a betting man, but I'll wager this isn’t what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they created this Republic.

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