Whew! Glad that’s over. Those 2014 elections were dirty. I need a power washer to peel off the mud. Wait! What’s that? Please, lord, no. Not 2016. Not yet.
It’s goodbye to Kay and Thom, hello to Roy and Pat, Hillary and TBA. That’s how we roll in the land of the perpetual campaign, where the hard choices of governing are far less entertaining than the bare-knuckle spectacle of electoral combat. Politics is our bread and circus.
It is comforting to blame campaign managers and the mindless 24/7 media for this sad fact. But in our consumer society, they are just giving us what we want. If we truly hungered for high-minded discussions, that’s what they’d give us. In fairness, plenty of penetrating analysis is just a click away. But it is overwhelmed by a steady diet of horse-race coverage, Manichean punditry, dishonest attack ads and sound-bite debates because that’s what moves voters and attracts eyeballs.
As H.L. Mencken observed, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
One result of the perpetual campaign is “Iceman Cometh” government – tomorrow, our leaders promise, after you elect us one more time, we’ll tackle the big problems. Another, as Richard Ben Cramer reported in his classic book, “What It Takes: The Path to the White House,” is a well-deserved cynicism toward candidates who snipe from the gutter to win our votes. Pundits ask why any decent person would run, given the attacks they must absorb. The better question is, why would any decent person run when it requires him to launch scurrilous attacks?
We did not invent toxic politics – ancient Romans and modern-day jihadists have far more direct methods of dispatching rivals than phony attack ads. If we agree with Freud that human beings are inherently violent, our political wars are a happily toothless sublimation of this destructive instinct.
Still, if politics has always been a nasty business, each era’s politics is nasty in its own way.
Politics does not lead, it follows; it is the cart drawn by the cultural horse. Many forces are driving our vicious hyper-partisanship. Chief among these are the technological and demographic shifts that have transformed America, fraying the ties that bind us, allowing us to believe the worst about one another.
Democrats and Republicans cast each other in a harsh light and accept the caricatures depicted in false campaign ads because, increasingly, they do not know or interact with one another.
Technology has exacerbated this trend, loosening our connections even to our “right-thinking” brethren. As Marc J. Dunkelman notes in “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community,” the Internet, cell phones, cable TV and other advances have created an explosion of personal freedom. Not too long ago, we were all forced to order from the same cultural menu – we watched the same TV shows, read the same magazines. Now we can self-select what we read and watch, where we go and live, who we hang out with face-to-face and online.
At the risk of oversimplifying the trend, an American culture that once had several, strong strands that bound groups together now has 320 million separate offshoots as each of us defines our own world. Increasingly, and by choice, we are alone together. This boon to self-determination is a disaster for our sense of community.
Polls showing declining faith in almost every aspect of American life – from government and public schools to religious institutions and even other people – say less about the state of the country than the state of our minds. We don’t trust what we don’t know.
Against this backdrop of growing isolation, politics fills two voids: It remains one of the few interests a majority of Americans share and, as our society eschews moralism, it has become a main channel for our moral impulses, as well as an important source of group identity. This helps explains why it is so tribal and so ugly.
These trends are deep. They will not be changed through empty calls for bipartisanship. Yes, in the long run, we can all try – it isn’t easy – to transcend our cultural moment and be a little wiser, kinder and more open-minded. For the next two years, buckle your seat belts because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.