In the vice-Presidential debate, the best question Martha Raddatz asked was the one that solicited the worst answers from both candidates. She described a conversation she’d had with a wounded soldier, home from Afghanistan, who asked about the tone of the election, the nastiness of it, and how he’d wondered if that was what he was fighting for. And she asked both candidates if they regretted their contributions to that tone. Both gave, I thought, disappointingly lame, partisan answers. But Raddatz asked a serious question, and one worth our further attention.
I thought I would link to some campaign videos on both sides, and talk about them. But first, let me show this. It’s an ad for Ben McAdams, who is running for Salt Lake County Mayor. I’ve only seen it a couple of times on TV, but wish he had the money to run it more. It’s positive, it’s clever, it’s cute, it’s maybe a little bit funny. It tells me something about the guy, without attacking his opponent. Okay, it’s got the ‘Eagle Scout, instead of Eagle Forum’ line, but even that line has an off-handed charm. This, to me, is a good example of what a political ad could be. It makes me want to vote for Ben McAdams, and not against his opponent, Mark Crockett. It’s positive, clever. (Crockett’s a smidge ahead in polls: he doesn’t have any ads running.)
But this is not the norm. This probably isn’t either, but it’s pretty funny. This dude takes running for Agriculture Commissioner seriously! I love the way he lovingly caresses his rifle at the end, and the way he refers to his opponents as ‘dummies.’ The ad was easy to find; just go to Youtube and search for ‘worst political ad.’ Comes right up.
No, what we hate are ads like this ad about china. And this about Romney and foreign policy. And the big bird ad. I despise all these ads; let me point out that they’re ads for my guy. Why hate an ad that’s trying to get my candidate elected? Because they’re dishonest. They’re perhaps not specifically or factually dishonest, but they’re dishonest in their insinuations and implications and conclusions. Mitt Romney didn’t mind investing in questionable Chinese defense firms. He is a dunce on foreign policy. He thinks Big Bird is more dangerous than Bernie Madoff. The last one is tongue in cheek, but it’s still nasty.
The ads I particularly loathe are this one attacking Romney’s Bain capital for doing business in China, like that’s somehow un-American. Free trade’s a good thing. It’s good for the world economy and it’s good for the American economy. These ads play into the worst kind of American nativism.
There’s a tough race going on in my home state of Utah. In the brand spanking new Fourth Congressional District, Democratic incumbent Jim Matheson is going up against the mayor of Saratoga Springs, Mia Love. She’s an African-American Tea-Party conservative Republican, an attractive, smart person with an interesting personal narrative, a successful business person, who I personally disagree with on issues and wouldn’t vote for, if I were in her district, which I’m not. I like Jim Matheson, and hope he wins–he won’t– but it’s a nasty race. Anyway, in one Matheson ad, which I can’t find on-line, he accuses Love of raising taxes multiple times while serving as mayor of Saratoga Springs. Well, of course she did. I know Saratoga Springs: it’s one of the fastest growing towns in the state. Raising taxes isn’t a bad thing; it’s a good thing. It’s how government pays for stuff. A mayor in a rapidly growing city had darn well better raise taxes to pay for expanded infra-structure and services. Why is that a bad thing?
And so here’s what I was gonna do: show how both sides do it. Look dispassionately at a whole series of ads, showing how awful they all are.
But I couldn’t. I went on Youtube and just starting searching for anti-Obama ads. And now I want to take a shower.
Check out this despicable ad. It’s sort of cool; very German expressionist artsy. But it’s contemptibly Orwellian; ‘Obama’ constructed as Big Brotherish head of politically correct thought police. This one strikes a different tone, sort of saddened by it all. Then there’s the pure race-baiting of this one: Obama as shiftless, irresponsible. It doesn’t actually use the N-word, but it might as well. Or this gem: organ harvesting obama, in league with satan. Or even this cute baby begging Obama not to take his Daddy’s guns. There’s pure viciousness masquerading as humor and overt racism masquerading as satire.
So the stuff we see on TV is the mild stuff, the stuff that networks can feel okay about airing. But underneath it, we see a campaign that’s really incredible, vile beyond anything I had previously imagined. Lift a corner of the rug and watch the cockroaches scurry.
I have always tried to defend conservatives against the charge of racism. Of course it’s possible to oppose the policies of an African-American President without having the tiniest racial motivation or inclination. I live in Utah; I know a lot of conservatives. I don’t think they’re anything but disgusted by racism.
But we need to acknowledge that for at least some percentage of the electorate, this race very much is about race, in the ugliest way. ‘Obama’ is consistently constructed as ‘Other’, as not quite Christian, not quite American. Not trustworthy. And at times, that anxiety over his leadership curdles, turns. The prospect of his re-election really is seen, in some circles, as apocalyptic. Some of that anxiety, of course, is rooted in genuine concerns about the economy, about the financial crisis and its aftermath. But underneath that, is another kind of anxiety. Obama’s a socialist–that’s the commonest attack point. And it’s ludicrous, of course. If Barack Obama is a socialist, I’m a sword swallower. He’s a pro-business moderate; the last four years have never seen higher corporate profits.
But what the world has seen since the end of the Second World War is the development of a new kind of nation/state, the combination economy, a nation built on the best of market economics and socialist safety nets. Norway, Sweden, Denmark. And now, pretty much the entire West, however we construe that. Pretty much all of Europe, a lot of South America, most of Asia (though the tendency there is more command economies than true laissez-faire). That’s where the world is now, and it’s what America is, inexorably, becoming. We’re also increasingly multi-cultural, multi-racial.
So these nativist, wrap-yourself-in-the-flag, vaguely (or overtly) racial appeals do have some traction. Our grandchildren will look at the Tea Party the way we look at the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850’s. But right now, there’s fear, there’s danger. Ugly campaigning is a scurrilous attempt to heighten anxiety, for political advantage. And no, to answer Martha Raddatz’s question, that’s not what our soldiers are fighting for.