I spent the weekend before a recent municipal election in Washington, D.C. being reminded of the passion for critique on which our country was founded. Standing in the rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial, it's dizzying to read "I have sworn... eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." I was a little disappointed when the first political campaign sign to catch my eye back in Durham read "Stith: Right-Wing Republican. Don't Be Fooled."
While the sign amused me -- principally because I grew up in a place where self-identifying as a right-wing Republican is more likely the campaign than the anti-campaign -- it bothered me the more I thought about it. The sign served only to distract voters from campaign issues by calling Stith a name -- "Republican" is a bad word in Durham, haven't you heard?
The last two hundred years of U.S. history are filled with progress -- in technology, quality of life, and cross-cultural communication for starters. But in politics, all too often we've regressed from our philosophical beginnings and opted for name-calling.
Democrats might defend themselves in two ways. First, they might say Stith's campaign was devoid of issues. He offered criticism with no solutions; he ran a campaign of distraction from the start. Granted, it's tough to debate someone who isn't clear where he stands. But we might begin by pointing out that a campaign strategy occluding both his party affiliation and recent position in a conservative think tank gives us a good reason to think he mistrusts transparency in government.
Or, they may offer a more childish defense: "he started it." True, Stith launched a campaign of distraction early in the election, specifically trying to drum up fear of Durham's growing immigrant community. The politics of fear is the worst sort of politics of distraction because it wants not only to disguise the real issues, but wants to displace them with visceral emotions and prejudice. While emotions and prejudice are natural parts of human psychology, we believe in a democracy that they must be tempered by reason.
And many of Durham's politically active citizens, bloggers and even a write-in candidate called Stith out. They managed to do it in a much more nuanced way than the Democrats, focusing on how Durham's immigrant population is full of people who... well, as the locally produced film Los Sueños de Angelica (Angelica's Dreams) shows, full of people who share the same hopes and dreams as anyone else in the U.S.
So why did the Democrats, then, just result to name-calling? Did they not have enough faith in Durham's citizenry to see through Stith's deceit? Is the idea that critical thinking matters to politics mere shibboleth in the YouTube age?
I wish I could have tested my belief that campaign tactics designed to scare people into voting for you don't work on an intelligent citizenry. A growing immigrant population -- documented or undocumented -- in Durham is a wonderful thing. A diversity of backgrounds, languages, and points of view makes a culturally rich place like Durham thrive. But it is hard to say whether we saw through Stith's fear-mongering, or simply were ourselves scared of voting for a "Right-Wing Republican."
The politics of fear and distraction play to the lowest common denominator; they play to the worst in us. Wouldn't we rather cultivate a political climate where leaders speak to the best in us?
Part of the solution involves breaking the hegemony of the two party system. Political campaigns can stoop to the lowest levels as long as 1) nothing much separates Republicans from Democrats and 2) there are only two political parties racing through the streets to City Hall (or to the Capitol, or to the White House).
But imagine an election where Libertarians, Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Greens, and others formed temporary coalitions, voting blocs, and other strategic partnerships. With more political parties in the mix, we would be less likely to see the traffic jams and catastrophic collisions we see when there are only two political vehicles racing down Main St. Traffic naturally calms when a critical mass of buses, bicycles, trucks, and cars all share the road -- elections, too, could be exercises in cooperation rather than competition.
It is still true that civil society is built on civil dialogue, right?