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The Corrosive Cynicism of American Politics

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opednews.com Headlined to H2 10/29/10

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There is less than a week until the 2010 mid-term elections, and as a regular voter of reasonably steady principles I have come to the conclusion that there are very few candidates in any party worthy of my vote.

What do I mean? First, I think my vote is precious. I am not obligated, even by civic duty, to cast a ballot in favor of a candidate whom I find objectionable. Nor is my vote a commodity to be purchased by those who may believe that personal wealth or corporate money injected into a political race can satisfy some private ambition or shape American politics to promote narrow private interests.

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There is no virtue in exercising the franchise just to preserve the appearance of civic participation. No. My vote must be a responsible choice made on behalf of a candidate who shares my values and who has demonstrated his or her virtue and character. I will vote for a candidate with whom I disagree on this or that issue if I trust that he or she will generally promote the public good and preserve the res publica--the commonwealth. Right now, and especially if I am to judge on the basis of the messages directed at me, there is no candidate of either major party, in any Congressional, Senatorial, or Gubernatorial race that has met these standards. Who among them, then, is worthy of my vote?

Indeed, if I had to select one adjective by which to describe the present campaign, I would choose "disrespectful." Candidates in both parties (although all deny they are responsible) have routinely shown disrespect for the political process, disrespect for each other, disrespect for voters, and disrespect for the truth. Why should I show respect for them, or the process they have so handily corrupted?

In their advertising, candidates address the citizen electorate like we are a bunch of morons. Only someone with no respect for voters would believe that the appeals directed at those who may go to the polls might be persuasive. To credit any of the ads routinely assaulting my sensibilities I would have to be hateful, or stupid, or naïve, or under the influence of a malevolent ideology. I hope I am none of these, but I cannot ignore the fact that this is the kind of voter candidates apparently believe they are addressing. We are, in their calculation, a mere means to their political end, and when people are used in this way, they are disrespected.

Likewise the truth is treated with disrespect. Sure, some of the claims made in the ads may be based on some demonstrable fact, but that does not mean the candidate or the campaign is motivated by truth. A noble ethics of persuasion seeks truth as the end or purpose of all communication. Voters should know all the facts, and judge reasonably about the public good. But, in political ads, facts are used as phony evidence to manufacture a veneer of truth. In this political propaganda, truth functions as a mere secondary value, enlisted to serve the greater end of power, money, victory, fame, empire, ideology, or ambition. And, if truth--that is, the whole truth--is inconvenient, then it is sacrificed in the name of those greater ends.

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As a result, the political advertising of this election season, indeed the overall tone of political discourse in America during this campaign, has been by turns insulting, slanderous, cheap, dirty, mendacious, cynical, venal, duplicitous, corrosive, malignant, and low. What does this say about the public ethics of those groups who sponsor these ads, or of those candidates who approve these messages? What will I be saying if I respond to these ads by participating in the farce of an election conducted in the gutter by men and women of such low character who insist they are responsible and trustworthy even as they spend millions of dollars lying about their opponents?

Campaign Junk Mail by Self

So far, in phone calls to my home, in flyers daily stuffed in my mailbox, on the radio, on television, I read and hear very little that is not designed to disparage the character of an opponent. One party refers to the candidate of another party as a liar. One gubernatorial candidate suggests his opponent sets child molesters loose on the public. That candidate replies by implying his opponent is the coddling friend of a rapist. As a matter of routine, candidates portray their opponents as scheming robbers of old-age pensions, or profligate wasters of our grandchildren's inheritance. All characterize their opponents as driven by the meanest of motives. All blame every social ill on the ideas of the other party, and those parties are routinely portrayed in the most extremist dress.

And how will this debased campaign shape the general tenor of public discourse after the election? Why should any of us now refrain from describing our local officials, or engaging or fellow citizens, with anything but the coarsest of language and the flimsiest of unsubstantiated allegations?

At the same time, not one candidate takes personal responsibility for creating or contributing to any of the problems we have collectively generated and must together solve. And, not one offers a realistic practical solution that reflects thoughtful analysis, recognizes legitimate concerns of those who disagree, or truthfully acknowledges the limits of what is possible within a complicated and deeply corrupted legislative system. And as far as I can tell, it is the same in every state.

If just half of what the ads claim is in fact true, if a mere fraction of the ads reflect our political reality, then we have reached the useful end of our republic, for we are producing by this election circus a representative government that consists of the most degenerate elements among us. And if the ads are NOT in fact true, then we must come, implicitly, to the same conclusion. Why, then, should we continue to participate in such an exercise? My choice is either to hypocritically contribute to this civic burlesque, or withhold my vote in protest. I can lower my standards, abandon my principles, and support one among the objectionable candidates trading lies, or I can withdraw and watch yet another spectacle of political comedy theatre. And why should I not do the latter?

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James Farrell is a teacher living in New England

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The Corrosive Cynicism of American Politics