Politics has long been a contentious activity in America and every other democracy. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Opposing sides, fervent in their desire for victory, pitch their stances, visions and aspirations to the electorate. They talk about their beliefs and experience. But these days, the candidates do not so much address their own vision as they do the beliefs and experience of their opponents. Their depictions of their opponents are never flattering.
Now they call one another liars. The goal no longer is to defeat the opposing candidate on the issues. The goal is crush the other personally … to portray him or her as despicable.
The only thing bipartisan about the current campaign season is that both the Democrats and Republicans have stooped equally to all-time lows. Small-town America, up to now, has escaped the offensive behavior displayed on the larger stage. But this political season is different.
The two major parties have contrasting philosophies. Ordinarily, this is a healthy arrangement. European nations that have more than two, indeed several, political parties have an even better opportunity than we to craft coalitions that address a wide spectrum of issues.
But with two dominant national parties and a shrinking middle, there is no room for real compromise. Unyielding positions harden; the opposing view is ignored at best but more often vilified. And civility and respect? Forget it.
The corrupting influence of virtually unlimited money has changed politics for the worse. Billionaires — from the left and the right — now pour millions of dollars into causes and candidates in Maine. Nationally, Democrats and Republicans have raised over $1 billion in contributions for this year’s congressional and legislative elections. One U.S. Senate race in Texas saw $38 million raised in the last quarter — for one candidate! In Maine, $7 million has flowed into the state from outside our borders for the governor’s race. Several million dollars more have been spent on negative campaigning for the Second District House race. Couldn’t these vast sums of money be used for positive messages to voters rather than on ads that assault and then insult our intelligence?
This year’s campaigning has reached annoying new lows locally that match the mischief on the national scene. Though the local candidates for Maine House and Senate have been reasonable and respectful, their respective state headquarters have been anything but. Flyers shouting negative slogans fill your mailbox. Robo-calls make us reluctant to answer our own telephones. Oppositional research background checks unearth old dirt on candidates that has little if any relevance to who those candidates are today.
Open harassment of public officials, threats to government staffers, accusations of lying and cheating and worse and ominous social media messages sent from behind faceless keyboards shower us all with mud.
Maine voters — all voters — are rightfully disgusted. Yet many of us take hardened positions, retreating to our silos and echo chambers of comfort and information-reinforcement, further separating ourselves from reliable information on the candidates and issues. Social media compounds the misinformation, lending further credence to complaints of fake news that distorts, demeans, demonizes and ultimately destroys opponents and their principles.
Campaign organizers claim negative advertising and messaging works, steering ill-informed voters to or away from candidates. The two parties — and their money machines — are each in a race to the bottom of a cesspool where nothing good occurs. Is this really what voters want or deserve?
Many candidates, maybe most candidates, are well-intentioned citizens looking to serve or, less idealistically, to advance an agenda. Yet who recognizes the people portrayed in the tainted characterizations displayed in the unending stream of negative ads? These abhorrent creatures can’t possibly have mothers who love them.
Ben Franklin said an educated citizenry is essential to our republic. This has never been more true. Voters must decry the morally bankrupt negative campaigning that attacks us. We all must seek accurate data and make informed choices at the polls. We must also expect our elected leaders — from both sides — to forcefully denounce the debasement of what was once an energizing contest. We are ill-served by the current path.
Step 1? Call out the top leadership in the state Democratic and Republican parties. Call for an end to hate campaigns and a return to civility. Party members are being badly served by distorting campaigns that threaten to reshape politics and render ugly a process that once was exhilarating.