I’m writing this before the November 2d elections, knowing that it won’t see print until the election results are known. The timing won’t keep me from making a prediction: voters will reward sleazy tactics, outright liars and buffoons of all political persuasions.
That’s because the election season that will (mercifully) be over when you read this has been dominated by two parties—not Republicans and Democrats, but those I’ll dub “denialists” and “enablers.”
Denialists have a variety of motives, but essentially, they are fleeing the complexity and ambiguity of modern life. They span a spectrum from the outright delusional—the so-called “birthers” who have convinced themselves that President Obama was born in Kenya, and the one in five Americans who believe he’s a secret Muslim—to the various groups of creationists, climate change deniers and others who are suspicious of science and empirical evidence and looking for any opportunity to reject findings that do not confirm their own beliefs or serve their own interests. They include the revisionists who cling to carefully selected and edited versions of America’s history and constitution.
There have always been denialists on the fringes of American political life. What is different today is that they are being enabled by the emergence of a media landscape in which the time-honored function of genuine journalism—truth-telling—has been pushed aside in favor of what sells, and telling people what they want to hear is a sure winner. The fact that paying talking heads to spout uninformed—occasionally deranged—opinions is so much less expensive than paying journalists to do actual reporting is just icing on the cake.
In this intellectually dishonest, morally distasteful environment, can we really be surprised that candidates of both parties have participated in a content-free, ugly exchange of untruths and half-truths?
In the run-up to November 2d, it has been impossible to avoid the hammering of negative, misleading ads. I am supposed to be outraged over the “government takeover” of Medicare (and too stupid to know that Medicare is a government program). I am supposed to believe that a candidate for prosecutor who once represented a defendant accused of child molestation is thereby disqualified for office (and to ignore the profoundly unethical conduct of a candidate who would make such a charge). Presumably, I am supposed to listen to the out-of-context charges and counter-charges, the grainy photographs and gloomy atmospherics and make my candidate selection based purely on my emotional response.
No wonder Jon Stewart held a rally for sanity. If the antics of this electoral season are any indication, it’s in short supply.
Actually, it was Stewart who came up with the best description of our current politics. In an interview, Terry Gross of NPR asked him about his focus on politicians and the media, and who was most culpable. Stewart said “Politicians are politicians. If you go to the zoo and monkeys are throwing feces, well—that’s what monkeys do. But you’d like to have the zoo-keeper there saying ‘Bad Monkey.’”