I suppose it was inevitable that the campaign would descend into filth and triviality. It’s sad though, given how much more was possible.
Just eight months ago, I was standing in a long twisting line in Wichita, Kansas, waiting for my chance to get into a Democratic caucus site. Ice particles were slamming into my face like pellets from Dick Cheney’s shotgun. The wind, howling at 30 or 40 miles per hour, cut through overcoats the way a brick flies through a plate glass window.
But there we were, all 1,600 of us at just that one site, shivering in unison. And no one — not one single person I could see — was going home.
In four decades of following politics, I’d never seen anything like this — you could almost feel the electricity racing through your cartilage, such was the excitement.
As I said at the time, “For decades, American politics has been of the walking dead, stumbling along uncertainly, stripped of life and passion.” But not that evening.
All across the nation it was the same story: new records being set for citizen participation. More people were voting than ever before, and contributions from small donors were also swelling to unheard levels. Democracy was showing unmistakable resurgence, something which, all of the moaning to the contrary at the time notwithstanding, continued to hold true through the roughest days of the Democratic primaries.
The question now becomes whether it can survive the coming onslaught from John McCain and the GOP.
You see, the GOP understands that the opposite of excitement in democracy isn’t apathy, it’s cynicism. And by “happy” coincidence, a capacity for generating cynicism has always been one of the right’s greatest political gifts.
What could be more cynical, for instance, than treating the United States government as a slush fund for right wing causes and politicians?
The genius here, of course, is that by these very actions (appointing unqualified hacks to run governmental agencies and handing out government contracts for political reasons) conservatives during their years in power all but guaranteed that our government would consistently fail to provide competent services. This, in turn, provided them with the perfect opening to argue their core position that the government is always part of the problem, and never part of the solution. And until, tragically, this strategy went over the top in New Orleans, it worked like a charm.
Turning to the election: what better way of generating cynicism than through a mendacious slash-and-burn style campaign (Washington Post)?
Sen. John McCain and his Republican allies are readying a newly aggressive assault on Sen. Barack Obama’s character, believing that to win in November they must shift the conversation back to questions about the Democrat’s judgment, honesty and personal associations, several top Republicans said.
With just a month to go until Election Day, McCain’s team has decided that its emphasis on the senator’s biography as a war hero, experienced lawmaker and straight-talking maverick is insufficient to close a growing gap with Obama. The Arizonan’s campaign is also eager to move the conversation away from the economy, an issue that strongly favors Obama and has helped him to a lead in many recent polls.
Yeah, that’s the ticket. Stop talking about issues and start spreading sleaze. Degrade the democratic process; make it seem small and petty; appeal in subtle ways to racism — always a winner. Trash the opposing candidates; trash their supporters; trash the system.
And it really doesn’t matter whether each individual slander sticks, since they all contribute to the downgrading of public faith in the democratic process itself — and, thus, ultimately, to the growth of cynicism.
The great thing, from a Republican perspective, of course, is that while cynicism is a dagger at the heart of liberalism, since, after all, liberals depend upon a sense of public spirit, it’s like gasoline in a Humvee to right wingers. Cynicism is what gets them up in the morning.
And Obama himself is far from the only target here. To have any hope of continued relevance, leaders of the far right need to do more than stop Barack Obama. They also need to stop this year’s “uprising” of the politically unwashed.
In a nation split down the middle between the two parties, conservative dominance has been made possible in recent years by the passion of the conservative base. But base politics has become very much a two-way street this year, as a whole new generation of young progressive voters seem intent on crashing the party. And that’s something McCain and the GOP can’t allow to happen.
Part of their response, of course, involves good old-fashioned vote suppression, trying to disqualify or scare away as many of these potential new voters as possible. But that will only take them so far. No, the far right’s real hope for political salvation is in generating enough cynicism among these new voters that they will stay home “where they belong,” instead of getting out to vote.
Yes, it’s pathetic. But it’s all they’ve got.