9/30/2007

Lame Political Discourse

I found this recent CNN news item about Hillary Clinton claiming Blacks are "invisible" to the Bush Administration and the GOP's response to it, courtesy of Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. Here is the main part of Dawson's response:

"[I]f you're a hardworking parent, you're invisible to Hillary Clinton because she voted for the largest tax increase in history. If you're a member of our armed forces, you're invisible to Hillary Clinton because she wants America to surrender to the terrorists in Iraq. If you believe all life is sacred and that marriage is between one man and one woman, you're invisible to Hillary Clinton because she joins with radical groups that support federal funding for abortion and forcing us to recognize same-sex marriages."
Remarks like this make it easy to understand why regular people have such a distaste for politics and such a high level of disapproval of Congress.

There's a difference between hardball politics, scare-mongering, and flat-out garbage, and this exchange involving Clinton and Dawson captures all three. To me, perhaps the most offensive of Dawson's remarks is the idea that Hillary Clinton "wants America to surrender to the terrorists in Iraq." What is the basis for accusing the former First Lady and a current senator of wanting to surrender to our nation's enemies? Should Clinton be charged with treason? That's a serious accusation, so if Clinton has indeed committed treason, she must be tried and summarily executed! Of course, when you put it that way, these people immediately backtrack and say they shouldn't be taken literally. So why bother making such an accusation at all?

To be sure, Hillary Clinton does not get a free pass with this kind of ridiculous rhetoric either. Neither should other Democrats who have made similar suggestions that the Bush Administration doesn't care about Black people. His appointees for Secretary of State (Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice) suggest otherwise. And regarding negligence, there are a lot of Whites along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and regions of Louisiana outside of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans who are still struggling even two years after Katrina. And Americans of all races are dying in Iraq with no clear leadership from the president and no clear statement of exactly what the mission is that we're trying to accomplish there. Children of all races are going to be impacted by his decision to veto the proposed expansion of the popular SCHIP program that provides health care coverage for lower income children. Bush is not a racist, as he seems to have no biases whatsoever when it comes to disadvantaging people.

The "surrender" charge commonly used by Republicans particularly bothers me though. How have they been able to survive as long as they have in politics by accusing Democrats, liberals, and Iraq War opponents of "wanting to surrender" to terrorists? Is this what qualifies as intelligent political discussion in this country? Do the people who say such garbage not realize that they are becoming the very people we're trying to defeat abroad? After all, Islamic radicals and terrorists use the same false choices to justify their misguided policies. Americans say "if you don't support the war and the president, you don't support America." Islamic radicals say "if you don't agree with us and our interpretation of the Koran, you are an infidel." Unfortunately, this line of thinking is a bit too cerebral to fit in with our current culture of soundbytes and 30-second ads. Of course, as soon as someone shows a similarity between an American (who is naturally the paragon of virtue by virtue of his nationality) and an outsider (who by definition must be inferior to us), that person is immediately pilloried as an America-hater, terrorist sympathizer, or even worse, French. Meanwhile, the substance of their argument goes unaddressed.

The patent dishonesty and intellectual laziness so many of us illustrate are only digging our nation deeper into a hole that weakens us collectively. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia University is only the most recent example of this. It's much easier to beat up on a dictator without thinking twice about it than it is to calmly let him self-destruct. Obviously Ahmadinejad had a big scarlet X on his back when he went to the university, but the way the university president condescendingly introduced him only served to make the Iranian president look good. What's the point of inviting a guest to speak at your university if you're only going to call him a "petty dictator?" While Ahmadinejad would never win a public relations battle in the United States, he looked far more victorious in the eyes of Muslims and Iranians around the world for standing up to his so-called American "hosts." And that's only going to make him more popular there and less likely to cooperate with us here. I wrote about the dangers of resorting to the easiest way of thinking ("us good, them bad") in a previous post and look how everything turned out.

Something very dangerous has happened in this nation since September 11. I'm not talking about subsequent terror attacks, Hurricane Katrina, or Iraq. I'm talking about the way fear has transformed our nation's political discourse. Gone are the days of expressing legitimate political differences like adults. Meaningful discussion about the great issues of the day has been replaced by buzzwords, soundbytes, and slogans that impugn the character and patriotism of our political adversaries, usually to our collective detriment. So while politicians on both sides criticize, posture, filibuster, and hyperbolize, people continue to die in Iraq. People continue to struggle with a lack of health care. People continue to send their children to failing schools. People continue to wonder if North Korea really will launch a nuclear weapon. People continue to worry about illegal aliens sneaking across the border. People continue to worry about the safety of their pension.

And it has to stop.

The current crop of presidential candidates just doesn't get it. John McCain is using the word "surrender" again. John Edwards is talking about getting 50,000 troops out of Iraq instantly without saying exactly how that is logistically possible. Rudy Giuliani says electing Democrats would put America on "defense" against the terrorists. Hillary Clinton doesn't do "hypotheticals." Fred Thompson doesn't seem to have a clue about anything going on in the world today. And Barack Obama speaks as if electing him will almost magically put an end to all the nonsense in Washington.

It's really hard to take any of these candidates seriously. Nothing is ever that simple.

A part of me can't help but wonder if there are voters out there who will support someone they philosophically disagree with simply because they are cerebral candidates who don't oversimplify the issues or insult voters' intelligence by making childish accusations against their political opponents. There seem to be two Republicans who fall into this category: Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee. I've listened to them defend themselves in all the presidential debates so far and notice that they have shied away from the groupthink mantra of "stay the course" and "fight them over there so they won't follow us here" and other silly slogans. Their arguments tend to be much more cogent and much more difficult to encapsulate in a 15 second radio ad. The only cerebral Democrats I see in the field are Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, with the latter making straight-shooting his calling card in the debates, especially when it comes to Iraq. Speaking of Biden, it appears that pundits are slowly picking up on his unique role in the field as well.

Governance is serious business. Managing billions and billions of dollars is serious business. War and peace are serious business. Having said that, why are so many of our leaders saying so much nonsense (in the form of ridiculous attacks or overly simplistic rhetoric) that makes us take them so much less seriously?

This nation really can't take too much more of this.

2 comment(s):

Silence Dogood said...

Excellent post Mr. Palmer. I have simplidfied a lot this (ironically enough) into a severe decline of maturity in public discourse, which stem from and are also encapsulated by "gotcha" commericails and press coverage. The presses coverage of topics and policies has gotten lazzier and lazzier (two z's?) but perhaps only in reponse to the lazziness of the news comsuming public - I guess it easier to digest that Edward's got $400 haircut McCain did a brief rendition of "Bomb Iran" to the beach boys tune before seriously answering the question asked than thoughtfully reasearching/approaching the questions of the day and the politician whom we will seek to lead us in solving those problems. I agree with you on Biden, I think Chris Dodd also fits that category, I ultimately chose to support Dodd (I believe you said you settled on Biden?) but either are good choice and I think Richardson would not be bad either. I don't say that to me Hill', 'Bama, or Johnny are "bad" but I think the bottom "half" on the dems side are ironcally much more qualified/prepared to lead than the top three. On the republican side, not to the same degree, but perhaps it is because a definite front runners have not completely solidified yet and hence they didn't choose celebrity for leadership potential just yet (maybe Fred Thompson will change all that for the Republicans). Thanks for the, as usual, thoughtful analysis.

Anthony Palmer said...

Silence Dogood,

Thanks again for your thoughtful and detailed comments. I must agree with you about Chris Dodd and even Bill Richardson. I've criticized Dodd for his senatorial delivery in the past, but he definitely knows what he is talking about. I will amend my post to include him with Biden.

As for Richardson, he is definitely competent regarding foreign policy. I was quite impressed when he was discussing the Iranian economy in the most recent debate, for example.

I really like it when the politicians get into the nuts and bolts of their policy proposals instead of addressing these issues from 30,000 feet by glossing over them with some stupid slogan.

And yes, the press is complicit in perpetuating this nonsense. They too have become lazier and lazier (one z!). I'm a journalism student now. If I ever joined a media organization and entered the management aspects of it, I would definitely work to change this.

Thanks again for the kind words, and thank you for reading The 7-10.

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