Once upon a time political campaigns were almost friendly competitions. (Think Lincoln-Douglas.) Candidates may have been ambitious, of course, but losing wasn’t the end of the world; they’d give voters their views, and if they didn’t prevail, so be it, they’d go back to practicing law. They usually regarded their opponents as honorable and worthy adversaries.
How times have changed.
The fundamental reason is that the stakes in elections have become so high. Being a congressman or even a governor didn’t mean all that much when government didn’t do all that much. Not so today when control of government means power over billions of dollars. Candidates will often go to great lengths — trashing anyone in their way — to gain, and hold onto, such power.
The stakes have also been raised psychologically in elective politics. We’re in a Vince Lombardi world here – “winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.” You don’t want to be, or be seen as, a loser. Candidates are driven by a terror of that fate. This was illuminated by a piece I read recently about Al Gore. When he was a potential president, the rich and mighty all sucked up to him. After he lost, they wouldn’t return his calls. It’s easy to imagine how devastating that can feel, driving politicians to do anything to avoid such humiliation.
And the higher the stakes in elections, the more are candidates motivated to expend immense resources on them. Meg Whitman in California has dished out $140 million of her own money running for governor. Other candidates must practically sell their souls to raise the cash. With that much invested, it becomes really really important to win – whatever it takes.
Another factor is that we no longer view political opponents as honorable and worthy. No – they’re not merely wrong, they’re wicked. We don’t just assail policies, we impugn motives. This Manichaean bent in our politics makes it seem justifiable to smear a political opponent with negative ads, no matter how unfair or distorted. After all, isn’t a little mud-slinging justifiable if it means defeating evil?
And, of course, such ads work. We say we hate them, but are too often infected by their insidious messages. My Californian mother told me she’d never vote for that scoundrel who “shipped jobs overseas.” It seemed hopeless to argue the complexities of the issue, and that the real scoundrel was the perpetrator of that smarmy ad.
These revolting attack ads don’t target intelligent, informed voters. Those people already know whom they’re voting for, and why. We
idealize the “independent” voter who supposedly reflects carefully before making up his mind. But in reality the swing voters are the most disengaged, ill-informed, and clueless, caring little about politics, who will vote on impulse and hazy impressions if they vote at all. They’re the ones who decide elections, and whom attack ads aim to sway.
I’d like to say you shouldn’t vote for any candidate who claims the other guy wants to “privatize social security.” Et cetera. But low blows like that are so widespread, it’s hard to avoid voting for the guilty. (However, minor party candidates are typically innocent. And it’s erroneous to think voting for a no-hoper is a “wasted” vote. You only waste your vote when you give it to a candidate you don’t actually want.)
Am I a cynic about democracy? No, a realist. To be a good citizen, you have to understand reality. And I love it – not some romanticized version of democracy, but the actual democracy we actually have. I love it, for all its flaws, because I know what the alternative is. And when I go into the voting booth, I consider it a sacrament.