28 October 2010

Dishonest Politicians And Those Who Believe Them

There are people who think that negative political ads are wrong. I'm not one of them. The most important things voters need to know about candidates are usually the bad things. We should know what's wrong with a candidate's policies and what personal failings a candidate has before we vote. It matters a lot more that voters make the right choice in races where there is something accurate and negative to say about one or both candidates than in one where both candidates are angels.

There are also people who think that too much money is spent on political campaigns. I'm not one of them. We spend far more money in our economy advertising soda and beer brands than we do on informing people about the people who want to lead our country for the next few years, and about the policy decisions that have been left for them to make at the ballot box. Moreover, we know that the average voter is woefully ill informed.

The trouble with the political campaign process in my mind is neither information that is too negative, nor too much information. It is information that isn't accurate enough.

The problem isn't a matter of mere isolated misstatements. It is a wholesale disconnect from reality at the core of the conservative electorate that makes up the Tea Party, adheres to conservative Christianity, makes up the Republican base, listens to talk radio, and watches Fox News.

You know who I mean.

These are the Birthers, who doubted that President Obama was born in the United States. These are the people who think that Iraq was connected to 9-11 or still believe that it had weapons of mass destruction. These are the climate change deniers. These are the people who push for abstinence based sex education even though overwhelming empirical evidence shows that it doesn't work. These are the people who think that states have a right to secede or defy federal law. These are the people who think that the U.S. Constitution was based on the Bible. These are the people who think that our schools ought to teach Creationism and Intelligent Design in biology class and teach the Bible as accurate history. These are the people who deny that the U.S. Constitution provides for the separation of church and state.

These are the people who think that illegal immigrants in the United States are more likely to commit crimes, when in fact, they are far less likely to do so. These are the people who think the government spends more money providing services to illegal immigrants than they pay in taxes, despite all evidence to the contrary. These are the people who think that thousands of non-citizens in Colorado are registering to vote despite knowing that they aren't eligible to vote and saying that they aren't citizens on voter registration forms.

These are the people who want to lower taxes and lower the national debt, without having any clue what that implies for government services. These are the people who think tax cuts increase government revenue, despite overwhelming empirical evidence that they don't, ever. These are the people who think middle class families pay estate taxes. These are the people who support Colorado Proposition 102 because they think pretrial services programs increase government spending, despite overwhelming empirical evidence that they save taxpayers immense sums of money. These are the people who support Colorado Propositions 60, 61 and 101 without having any clue what that does to our state budget. These are the people who think that the death penalty saves public money.

Maybe the leaders of the starve the beast ideology, like Doug Bruce and John Andrews, actually have some sense of the harm that their proposals do to government and simply have such a screwed up view of the world that they don't care. But, I don't believe that the people who listen to them and believe them do.

These are the people who love Medicare and Veteran's Administration health care, but are opposed to socialized medicine. These are the people who think that a mild tax incentive to encourage people to buy private health insurance is in the words of Colorado conservative figure John Andrews "central planning for one-sixth of the economy." These are the people who think that medical malpractice claims are an important reason that the cost of health care is soaring.

We don't turn people away from the polls for being ill informed. And, isolated, random, lack of knowledge doesn't do much harm. But, systematic denial of reality by 30% or so of the voting public puts a horrible burden on the mechanisms of democracy. Demagogues like Glenn Beck, who make it their business to delude as many people as possible for political gain, are despicable.

What is wrong with these people?

People have genuine, insurmountable disagreements in their values. I can understand and accept that. Our political process exists to adjudicate those disputes. But, there is a difference between political differences based on differences in values and political differences based on belief in lies that people have been actively fed and have grown accustomed to lapping up. Disagreements based on false facts aren't legitimate.

Democrats believe in the power of rationality and knowledge and honesty to produce good decisions. Perhaps they believe in these ideals, and in fairness in the process, too strongly for our political system. We are loathe to tap into the public's fears and emotions, even when that is what drives their decision making process. We're also too slow and ineffective at the process of calling out liars. We're unwilling to make up absurd "big lies" and stick to them for months and years on end.

There are fair minded, reality based Republicans out there. I've met them. But, they are a minority in their party these days. And, many of those Republicans who do have a clue and gain power in their party lack another trait that used to be the hallmark of their party. They don't know how to behave with civility. They don't know the meaning of the word responsibility.

There are cheap and dirty tricks too. Running TV ads discouraging Latinos to vote. Challenging voter registrations of people who know are probably legitimate voters. Accusing people of voting one way on legislation when they did the opposite. Giving money to third parties you hate just to take votes from your real opponent. Bringing lawsuits that you know don't have merit.

I don't think that the criminalization of politics is the solution. Enforcing criminal libel laws aren't going to make politics cleaner. The problem runs deeper than that. Tens of millions of people embrace a fantasy constitution, a fantasy reality, and a set of beliefs about how our economy and political system work that is just factually untrue. When tens of millions of people are running away from the truth as fast as they can, it is hardly surprising that they often make bad decisions. What does it take to wake them up? I don't know. But, it is troubling that so many seemingly normal people believe such strange, and more importantly untrue, things.

There is a cottage industry out there of people like Bell Curve co-author Charles Murray telling the "New Elite" that:

What sets the tea party apart from other observers of the New Elite is its hostility, rooted in the charge that elites are isolated from mainstream America and ignorant about the lives of ordinary Americans.

Let me propose that those allegations have merit.

He makes a stalwart case that the New Elite is living in a cultural bubble:

Get into a conversation about television with members of the New Elite, and they can probably talk about a few trendy shows -- "Mad Men" now, "The Sopranos" a few years ago. But they haven't any idea who replaced Bob Barker on "The Price Is Right." They know who Oprah is, but they've never watched one of her shows from beginning to end.

Talk to them about sports, and you may get an animated discussion of yoga, pilates, skiing or mountain biking, but they are unlikely to know who Jimmie Johnson is (the really famous Jimmie Johnson, not the former Dallas Cowboys coach), and the acronym MMA means nothing to them.

They can talk about books endlessly, but they've never read a "Left Behind" novel (65 million copies sold) or a Harlequin romance (part of a genre with a core readership of 29 million Americans).

They take interesting vacations and can tell you all about a great backpacking spot in the Sierra Nevada or an exquisite B&B overlooking Boothbay Harbor, but they wouldn't be caught dead in an RV or on a cruise ship (unless it was a small one going to the Galapagos). They have never heard of Branson, Mo.

There are so many quintessentially American things that few members of the New Elite have experienced. They probably haven't ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club, or lived for at least a year in a small town (college doesn't count) or in an urban neighborhood in which most of their neighbors did not have college degrees (gentrifying neighborhoods don't count). They are unlikely to have spent at least a year with a family income less than twice the poverty line (graduate school doesn't count) or to have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian. They are unlikely to have even visited a factory floor, let alone worked on one.

As John Andrews put it in an op-ed in last Sunday's Denver Post, quoting British historian Paul Johnson:

"Beware intellectuals. Not merely should they be kept away from power. They should be objects of suspicion when they offer collective advice." . . . The Tea Party movement is evidence of millions of Americans losing patience with the beneficent rule of enlightened experts that has been progressivism's holy grail since the days of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson[.]

Is it any surprise that this anti-intellectualism comes from someone claiming affiliation with Colorado Christian University in his byline?

These would be good arguments if they weren't arguing false inferences. Are the reality based liberal politicians the one who getting in the way of the interests of the average guy? No.

The very people who are claiming to be in touch with America's put upon working class are the very same people who are doing their damnedest to rob the working class blind, take away what government does that benefits them, repeal the regulations that protect them, and end almost all taxes that the "New Elite" pays on their wealth. It is rank exploitation. It is a P.T. Barnum ("There's a sucker born every minute") attitude towards the the average man.

Progressive policy wonks can come up short when it comes to getting a message across to the average guy. Al Gore was the quintessential example of that. But, their hearts are pure, and their competent. They're trying to do the right thing and putting all the accumulated knowledge at our disposal to work figuring out what is the right thing to do, unlike the average Republican politician who thinks that what the only lesson to learn in economics is that the market will do the right thing when left to its own devices. But, the problems they have to solve are big ones and the political will hasn't always been there.

The Tea Party isn't, really, complaining that American elites are out of touch. It has been the Democrats making war on Wall Street abuses that has been doing that. The Tea Party isn't asking for people to get their point of view. They instead have brought the hollow cry that they are overtaxed at a time when taxes have never been lower, and that they are being oppressed by a health care bill that doesn't look anything remotely like the one that just became law, to a new level of shrillness. They are fighting over policy, not style or sensitivity, and since the facts aren't on their side, they are making them up.

Republicans are mounting an intense version of the Chewbacca Defense. They're spouting non-sense and irrelevancy to hide the fact that they don't have a clue about how to fix our nation and want to return to the policies that got us in this mess in the first place.

Tea Party backers are also claiming to be people that they aren't. These aren't salt of the earth ordinary people. Their affluent, educated suburbanites with mortgages and Internet access who mow their lawns short, keep their SUVs shiny, work in office parks and never encounter people who don't look like they do.

Republicans have also lost all sense of quality control in their candidate vetting process. Here in Colorado, we have Dan Maes, perhaps the only man in the state who can make a malicious raving idiot like Tom Tancredo look good by comparison. In Kentucky, their running seriously creepy Rand Paul. In a down ticket Colorado race this year, they're running a guy who shot a gun at his wife for the state legislature, and a guy whose performance as an election lawyer left his client with a half a million dollars in penalties for Secretary of State. A couple years ago, they ran someone who was convinced that organ donation was murder for coroner and got him elected in Montrose County (also home to a Republican District Attorney who is in prison right now for rape). In politics, the man is the message, and the Republican message doesn't show the public much respect.

Should Democrats expect to be vulnerable in this election? Yes. They should. This nation was slipping into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression just before they swept Democrats into office in 2008, and its not over yet. They took important steps to deal with the problems our nation is facing, but it wasn't enough. Despite healthy majorities in the House and Senate and control of the Presidency, they didn't manage to show the courage of their convictions and pass all the legislation that our nation needed.

But, that doesn't mean that voters should replace them with people who are even worse. The Republican party isn't offering solutions. Its proposals don't match its rhetoric. It is promising what it knows it can't deliver. It is encouraging people to let their dismay at the economy boil over into political violence. It has taken the position that stupidity is good policy. It is elevated the writings of a Cold War lunatic to policy gospel.

I'd sooner trust the nation to a class full of fifth graders than to the bat shit crazy people who are carrying the Tea Party banner. Fifth graders aren't as good at lying to themselves, and are still pure enough to want to do the right thing.

In five days, we'll learn how many people were suckers and took the Tea Party bait. Until then, its time to turn on the alarm clock full blast and hope that enough people wake up.

1 comment:

Uncle Enore said...

Though you and I could have a wide ranging discussion about lots of the aspects you mention about the Tea Party folks, you seem to overlook the most important negative aspect of them. Dressing in Halloween costumes all the damned time. Listen, anyone who dresses up like some dumbass to try and get me to listen to him has no points to make that I want to hear.

I would like to bang Palin, though she'd have to promise not to speak to me. Oh, sure, some enthusiastic moaning would be fine, but other than that...