In the campaigns we saw in the fall of 2000, there was a strong emphasis on running a "positive" campaign. As many pundits have noted, being "positive" apparently means that a candidate shouldn't question the record or qualifications of his or her opponent: that would be mean ("negative"). A small minority of those pundits have questioned the wisdom of "positive" campaigns, reasoning that if a candidate is actually a slimeball or has a ridiculous record, discussing those weaknesses is relevant no matter how mean it is, since past faults tend to translate into future bungles.
Like I said, this ground has been covered (though not often enough), so we'll leave that point for a moment. Instead, I'd like to point out another implicit rule of the campaign: candidates take it upon themselves to be "positive" not only about their opponents, but also about the citizens they are poised to represent. Haven't you noticed that in politicians' speeches the American People are always compassionate, sagacious, hard-working, understanding folks who deserve an honest break?
This pandering to the vanity of voters creates a problem for politicians: if the American People are so wonderful, they can't be to blame for the problems facing the nation. We're all too familiar with the solution to the problem: it's the other politicians that are getting it all wrong. If only we could clean house and get rid of those few bad apples, the tale is told, we'd finally have our morning in America complete with aprons, apple pie, baseball, bran muffins, clean laundry, hot dogs, respectful children, smiling neighbors and sunny days for all.
An example of this kind of appeal was found in George W. Bush's main claim for his candidacy: he says he'd "restore honor and dignity to the White House" and "change the tone in Washington." Those sound like nice things to do - after all, are there any among us who don't like honor, dignity and improved tone? Problems arise, however, when one tries to parse out the meaning of these phrases. I see two possibilities: 1) Bush was interested in restoring the character of a particular house and a particular city, or 2) Bush was arguing that, once Washington and the White House are fixed up, the rest of America will fall in line. Option #1 is just plain silly in the context of a national election, but Option #2 is an appeal strongly reflecting the notion that the problems in America are fundamentally problems in the government, not the people.
Since Bush ascended to the Presidency, he's made his way through press conference after press conference defending his Cabinet nominees. What about the nominees' ultra-right agendas on gays, religion, workers and the environment? Tut, tut, responds President Bush: what you need to know is that my nominee "has a good heart." Ignore policy, focus on whether someone is nice and everything will turn out OK.
This idea isn't restricted to the GOP, either. What message do you think Al Gore tried to send every time he necked with his wife on some stage? It sure wasn't an appeal to political idealism. No, Gore's was really trying to show that he's got love in his heart. If we elect a President with love in his heart, apparently the whole nation will warm along with it. Ralph Nader of the Green Party also depended on the fundamentally positive character of the American people: it's the corporations, you see, that have royally messed things up; if we freed the people from corporate dominance, then everything would be alright. Bringing in the rear was Pat Buchanan, who picked his own unique target: if only we could get rid of the queers and atheists and communists and foreigners, America would be a right-living nation again.
Well, it sure would be nice if the only thing wrong in America was the political circus of Washington, D.C., or the dominance of corporations, or the flood of goddless commie queer foreigners. We'd have a neat and tidy problem that could be solved in a neat and tidy manner.
But the world isn't a neat and tidy place. All of these politicians, in their pandering to the American public, overlook the strong possibility that the values, priorities and actions of the citizens of our nation are deeply flawed.
And there are flaws out there. We can carp and criticize teachers and the education system all we like, but the problem remains that most American citizens don't give a rat's patootie about education and the life of the mind that education is supposed to foster. Our disdain is reflected in our tendency to refer to post-education experiences as "the real world," as if schooling were somehow irrelevant and unreal. Our antipathy toward learning seeps down to our children, who tease, beat up and otherwise ostracize "brains" and "nerds". Again and again, we push our school boards to spend tens of thousands of dollars on new scoreboards for the high school baseball team while schoolrooms are left bereft of books. Major universities are more widely respected for their football teams than for their scholarship. Politicians know this about us, so even while they tell us we're great, they play to our pettiness: in the last election, Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona kept referring to his opponent as "the Professor." Do you think that was a compliment to someone who had earned a PhD and worked in the classroom? Meanwhile, Candidate Bush sneered at campaign rallies that Al Gore "likes numbers!" Crowds cheered. Is this the ultimate insult? What does that say about us as a people?
We are also a violent people, prone to anger and aggression. Although crime is down, we still overwhelmingly encourage teachers to hit our children in some areas of the country. We agree that it's a good idea to kill people who kill people in order to demonstrate that killing people is wrong. Pacifism is a dirty word in our culture. Politicians know this about us, so even while they tell us we're sterling people, they play to our aggression: the debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore wasn't whether our nation's military killing machine is appropriate -- the debate was about who would make it bigger faster. Bush grinned proudly as he boasted that as Governor he put people to death.
Politics hasn't always been like this, and it doesn't need to be now. John F. Kennedy, an incredibly popular figure, was praised for proclaiming "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." We need somebody at the head of this country like that again -- someone who isn't defined by focus groups, someone who isn't always looking for a cheap target to blame. We need someone who can look us in the eye, honestly talk about our own problems as a people, and challenge us to live up to our better, more honestly positive selves.
Oh, well. There's always 2004...
Aisles of idiocies straight from the brain of Dick "Dr. Evil" Cheney can be found at the official website of The Ribald Reign of King George the Second.
Cmon, kids! Let's sing along to "The Kennebunkport Hillbilly".
These aren't just absurd times, they're irregular times.
Irregular Times require backtalk. So talk back to us!