Our home is located on a fairly busy highway and I mow about five acres. A couple of weeks ago I was on the tractor mowing the area closest to the highway and witnessed what could have been a very serious accident. When I looked up I saw a small Ford truck turn left in front of a large Pontiac. The resulting crash resembled a scene from The Matrix (Reloaded). The cars collided and flew up into the air, and it was all in slow motion (at least in my mind). Both drivers and a couple of passengers were banged up and bruised, but everyone survived.
I was the first person on the scene and made certain 911 was called and determined that everyone was going to be OK. As you probably know, I’m a political junky so later in the day when reflecting on the accident my first thought was…”it reminds me of Washington, DC; a crash taking place in semi-slow motion”. Train wreck. Plane crash. Avalanche. Tsunami. You can choose the metaphor because they all apply. Our national government is a disaster.
This is not a new development. It is easy for the Anti-Trump crowd to argue that the car crash began on January 20, but that’s just not true. Of course I agree that President Trump has accelerated the rate of the crash because his leadership skills are, to put it lightly, a joke. Not only does he attack Democrats (although even two years ago he claimed to support the Democratic Party’s views on a number of issues and prior to 2010 most of his political contributions went to Democratic candidates), he even attacks his own appointees for following the law and behaving ethically. To be honest, the White House itself is a car crash/train wreck but nothing I could say here would change anyone’s mind either way, so I’ll let it go (for now). But, as I said, the debacle began much earlier than the inauguration of President Trump.
The current unwillingness of our elected officials to compromise and work together can be traced directly to Lee Atwater, the Republican strategist who introduced a slash and burn form of politics that included push polling (an incredibly deceitful strategy) and sending out letters to voters telling bald faced lies about an opponent and doing everything possible to smear an opponent’s name. If you think I’m exaggerating I encourage you to check out a film entitled Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story. Spoiler Alert: Atwater regretted and apologized for his nasty campaigns before he died. Unfortunately his approach was successful and would be used by countless future politicians. In 2000, for example, George Bush’s South Carolina political operatives who had learned well from Atwater used the same tactics to derail the nomination primaries for John McCain by claiming he had fathered an illegitimate (black) child and making other outrageous claims.
To be clear, American politics has always been nasty, but Lee Atwater took modern nastiness to a new level, and there are at least two major consequences. First, nasty campaigns make it difficult for elected officials to actually govern, and I’ll explain why in a minute. Also, because of this callous campaigning the public has become increasingly polarized and, to a fairly large extent, gullible because some voters actually believe lies told in campaigns even if those lies are idiotic and ludicrous; a fairly large subset of the voting public focuses on the outrageous lies rather than substance.
So why do I argue that such campaigning makes governing difficult? I could just point to the more obvious characteristics of current Washington, DC to make my point, but that is too simple. A while back I was trying to get a handle on the impact of such campaigning when I ran across this piece which was actually written prior to President Trump’s election. In this well-documented paper the authors argue that 1) compromise is absolutely necessary in our American democracy and 2) the current political tone and processes make compromise almost impossible. The nasty attacks coupled with wild promises help politicians win voters and elections but work against the compromise necessary to actually govern. Governing requires reaching across the proverbial aisle and finding areas of agreement.
You and I both know this just isn’t happening these days. Congress’s inability to find reasonable reforms that could either strengthen or abolish the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is the most recent example. As I’m sure you know, both parties were not even involved in the discussion of alternative healthcare plans because Congress refuses to return to “regular order” although many members of Congress, including Senator John McCain, believe doing so is necessary and that doing so would return at least a semblance of sanity to the legislative process.
And the nastiness is not limited to congressional and presidential campaigns. In last year’s Missouri Republican primary for state attorney general , candidate Kurt Schaefer stated that his opponent Josh Hawley “worked for a terrorist, he should never work for Missouri” while Hawley claimed that Schaefer “votes to allow Chinese to buy (Missouri) farms.” Some voters obviously accepted these claims without checking their accuracy.
Or a campaign will make broad claims about an opponent that are difficult to challenge or validate. The 2014 Florida governor’s race between Charlie Crist and Rick Scott probably set that standard. Unsubstantiated charges of “fraud”, “swindling”, and “Ponzi schemes” were the rule rather than the exception.
So, if American campaigning has always been nasty why am I claiming that contemporary nastiness is different? Because, as I said earlier, a gullible portion of the public is now buying all the extreme rhetoric of their favored candidates rather than focusing on policy issues. It is easier to focus on Obama’s birth certificate than on environmental degradation. It is easier to focus on Marco Rubio’s silly claims about the size of Donald Trump’s privates than on ideas for improving infrastructure. It is easier to believe Hilary Clinton’s claims that Governor Mike Pence slashed education funding and that she never received classified emails on her private server than it is to verify those claims.
America is divided, but the fringe left and fringe right are primarily to blame. These two groups perpetuate division and hate compromise, and the politicians they elect are forced to either oppose compromise or lose reelection. As a consequence politics has become win at all cost and actually governing be damned. As long as voters keep their collective heads in their collective rear ends and don’t pay attention to facts and ideas rather than political rhetoric and outrageous claims, compromise will remain a dirty word and America will not move forward.
I am a big fan of compromise. For all the people who scream about conserving the brilliance of the Constitution, I hear very few who understand that it was a massive compromise that left nearly everyone involved in its creation thinking, “well, it’s better than what we have.”
With the possible exception of Alexander Hamilton, my favorite American politician is Henry Clay. (We could have long conversations about their flaws, but they were brilliant at making deals when deals needed to be made.)
Clay kept the U.S. from tearing itself apart several times by getting stubborn people to work together. I wish we had someone like him right now.
I completely agree these smear campaigns have been the death of American politics. It’s a giant P.R. mess. How can they badmouth the opposition out of one side of their mouth and then work alongside them out of the other. I was just telling my husband this year the last campaign I can remember prior to the smear campaigns was just as you’ve said prior to 2000. It’s nice to know who to trace it back to! I’d have more respect for a candidate if they’d spend at least one speech talking more about what they can do and what they bring to the table rather than cutting down the competition. (And we scratch our heads and wonder why bullying is so prevalent in this society. Behaviors trickle from the leadership down.) If you went in for a job interview and spent the whole time smearing the other interview candidates rather than talking about what you bring to the table, nobody would hire you. I cannot comprehend why this works in politics but nowhere else.