As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: you liberate a city by destroying it. Words are to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interests.
Something profound has happened in American history. Oh, we’ve seen the signs since the country was founded – campaigns have always been ugly… brutal, even… lies spread every which way about every candidate in every form of communication. That part isn’t new.
What’s new is the lies now spread about the American people.
It’s insidious. Even as much as I follow politics, I didn’t see it clearly until now.
Somewhere along the way, presidents and presidential candidates have forgotten that, in the White House, they must be the president of everyone, not just of the people who voted for them. They have become willing to throw entire groups of people away, to offend their sensibilities, their beliefs and their convictions, for the sake of currying favor with those other Americans who hold opposing views.
Elections have become less about pitting one candidate against the other and more about pitting one group of Americans against another in the name of a candidate. We’ve heard it called “the politics of fear,” and that’s accurate, but it’s usually a phrase flung forward by a candidate using it to scare their supporters away from their opponent. We’ve heard it called “class warfare” – a term that amuses me, since the last uncounted years demonstrate that class warfare has always been waged – but usually on the poor instead of the rich.
We are now in a time when greatly offensive words uttered in private fundraisers and recorded are called “inelegant” instead of what they really are: the truth of a candidate’s feelings accidentally spoken aloud. It is as true of then-candidate Obama’s “guns and religion” as it is of Mitt Romney’s “victims.” That these things were said doesn’t surprise me. Both comments offended me. In campaigning, I’m willing to call it a wash. But in the intent to govern the American people, what it truly is is a name-calling. A categorization of some Americans into “those people.”
And so when it happens, a candidate or a president has two choices: stand by it and essentially claim it as your true feeling, or back off from it and apologize for offense. Mr. Romney has done the former; the president, the latter. I don’t know which one is more sincere or more admirable, but I do know which one acknowledges offense and error (albeit after the fact).
It is no coincidence that these uncovered utterances happen at private fundraisers. It is, after all, money that is king in a republic meant not to have one. It is in front of $30,000-a-plate diners that candidates are willing to make those less elegant feelings known, so they can gather funds from the people who agree. Until they’re in office, they speak only to friendly audiences.
But of course, all candidates, all people, have their biases. We’ve heard it in decades-old tapes of Presidents Nixon and Johnson in the Oval Office. It is the information age, the age of global media and the internet, that have laid those biases bare in campaigns in recent years. Maybe nothing has really changed at all, and it’s just that we know about it all now. But the Observer Effect tells us that the act of observing a phenomenon or event changes the phenomenon or event. So the fact that the American people can now hear and see these biases will change the way campaigns are run, the way we vote, and the way we are governed.
It was the Great Communicator, the Republicans’ sainted and oft-invoked Ronald Reagan, who first understood that we were coming into a global media atmosphere. His speeches stirred the masses because they found them inspiring. Are we inspired now by the messages we hear? And if so, what are we inspired to do? Are we inspired to support a candidate because he reinforces our distrust of a group we consider opposed to us?
If so, that’s the wrong way to be inspired. On either side. And it is our responsibility to be aware of that.
Somewhere in the fairly recent past, politicians came to believe that the key to getting elected is to make us distrustful of one another. It’s what spurred the sea change of the 2010 congressional elections. It is what’s driving this presidential campaign. It is an engine of its own, churning so mightily in Congress that it is propelling those who used to be moderates either out to the margins or out of their offices voluntarily, if not by elective force. Politicians believe that this is what we want.
And we’re proving it, every time we vote a moderate out of office. It may be the single greatest unintended consequence of American government: the sacrifice of our government’s ability to work together.
I didn’t divulge the name of the person I quoted at the beginning of this post for a reason. He was a contentious figure, one regarded as vitriolically partisan. And he was not a politician. I didn’t divulge his name because I wanted to see how many people who might philosophically disagree with him would in fact agree with at least this statement, without knowing the speaker’s leanings. Sometimes I think we could use more of that kind of decision-making – the kind that eliminates party or platform, that takes “those people” out of the message and speaks simply to common sense, even though common sense can differ.
It was common sense, and a common goal of independence and the betterment of man, that created this country.
Perhaps that is what we need to sustain it.