“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible…. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness.”
– George Orwell – “Politics and the English Language”
The irony of the summer Olympics and U.S. Presidential elections always taking place in the same year is just about too much to bear. On the one hand, we have an overwrought, if touching, explosions of national pride, community, and displays of personal excellence. The Olympics have the power to sweep up the least jingoistic among us, even to the point of investing actual time and energy into something like water polo or team handball. On the other hand, we have bitter division, undisguised vitriol, and wave after wave of oppressive negativity that does nothing to inform and less to ensure the election of a competent, maybe-even-potentially-good leader. When the Olympics ended, the news cycle was immediately deprived of something that it possesses all too infrequently: feel-good content. In fact, it seems like both President Obama and Governor Romney waited until the Olympics ended to officially kick off the campaign’s stretch run just so as not to harsh anyone’s warm, fuzzy, patriotic buzz. The weekend of the closing ceremonies was the same weekend that Mr. Romney unveiled Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate and the tone of many ads from both candidates turned the corner from chiding to caustic.
None of this is surprising. I would bet that all of us who bother to inform ourselves are basically sick of the endless negative campaigning, even when the ad speaks out against the candidate we also oppose. The weird part is that while we say we don’t like negative campaigns, they apparently work. This is, of course, just one more frustrating element of our nation’s already pretty frustrating (what with the endless anonymous campaign contributions and the bloated talking heads and the almost pervasive sense that our individual votes mean less and less in the face of previously mentioned contributions) political process. In addition, however, we also have to combat the endless linguistic labyrinths constructed by the candidates themselves, their staffs, and, ever-more, the media.
Again, no surprise. But isn’t that a Ron Burgandy-sized Big Deal? Shouldn’t it matter – a LOT – that we’ve gotten to a point where we essentially accept the hi-jacked language that “news” outlets lob at us like indecipherable word-grenades? Because we do. We freely admit that candidates hedge and question-dodge and pretty much do their best to avoid providing anything that resembles a meaningful response, we openly accept that a huge portion of the media is biased in one direction or the other, but we don’t have an adequate retaliation as a culture, a way to take back, in some sense, a process in which the basic necessity of something resembling the truth has been increasingly marginalized. We have let them co-opt our language and use it to dissemble and hide and enrage us. We are complicit in our own impotence. They go on, defending the indefensible, and we swallow their euphemisms and accept the vagueness.
This might be the point where you expect the rallying cry, and I’m sorry to have to disappoint you, but I don’t even know what the cry might sound like, or how any plan to undo all that we agree has been done to us. The media exists as an almost impenetrable wall standing between us and the people we elect, especially at the state and federal levels. We might get angry at a candidate for dodging or altogether ignoring, say, the budget plan that’s central to his running mate’s political reputation, but I certainly don’t feel empowered to do anything about it if the “journalist” asking the question doesn’t press him into giving a real answer. Instead, I just grit my teeth and concentrate on stopping the twitch in my eye when the candidate flashes a grin and begins to circumnavigate the issue at hand like Ferdinand Freaking Magellan. But even this, for all of its rage-inducing power, isn’t the worst of it. Politicians have been pirouetting around interviewer’s questions for decades (maybe more than a century; does anyone have transcripts of Millard Fillmore’s campaign commercials?), but two other “developments” (I don’t want to give the impression that I think these are really “new” happenings) have all but driven a stake into the heart of the way we navigate the twisted thickets of the political landscape.
Number One: Citizens United. If you don’t know about this enormously important Supreme Court decision, the nuts and bolts of it (as Stephen Colbert loves to point out) is that, according to the highest court in the land, corporations are people, and their money is equivalent to speech (do yourself a favor and give the above link a quick look, SCOTUSBlog does an excellent job of providing a lot of information in a condensed space). Therefore, under the First Amendment, it would be unconstitutional for any legislation to limit their ability to contribute to political campaigns. The result has been PACs (Political Action Committee) and Super-PAC’s, bottomless pits of funding that, although they can’t technically “coordinate” with a candidate, can air commercials, distribute literature, and push all legally available buttons to help get their preferred candidate elected. The result? An absolute quagmire. Commercials aired by PACs have no reason to be civil, because they don’t technically represent the candidate, only the candidate’s supporters. Does their information have to be accurate? Nope. Do their messages have to be okay’d by candidates? Nuh-uh. The world of PACs is the Wild West, people, and in this scenario, we’re the Native Americans, an undesirable afterthought in the minds of the people staking their claims to every square inch of power and influence they can get their hands on. The Citizens United ruling gave a very small number of people an incredible amount of influence not only over the actual outcome of the elections (which is bad enough, obviously), but, combined with the previously mentioned second “development” (the pervasive angry-commentary-disguised-as-news genre that fills the primetime schedules on every cable news network) has transformed the tenor of the election, our attitudes towards the political process, and even our attitudes towards each other. Think about the way we’ve let the media control the way we see other people, even (especially) those we know next to nothing about on a personal level. If you support Obama, you’re a socialist, wealth-redistributing, baby-killing, tax-and-spend tree-hugger; Support Romney and you’re a homophobic, xenophobic, corporate whore who doesn’t care about the poor or civil rights. Reductive much? It may be our natural instinct to oversimplify, but the media – specifically the FOX Newses and MSNBCs of the world – has given us the rhetoric. They’ve spoon fed us not just the image of our political opponents as mortal enemies who must be put down at all costs, but the language with which to spread their messages of apocalypse. I’m sorry to tell you that if President Obama wins a second term, you won’t have to take up arms against your government and start another revolution. An immigrant will not be permitted to move into your house and start sleeping with your wife. You will not have to trade your paycheck for a cafeteria tray’s worth of cold gruel. Your grandmother won’t be euthanized. No one will secretly marry you to a person of the same sex. If Governor Romney wins the White House, it won’t mean anything about the Mayans. You won’t be made to drive a six-miles-to-the-gallon-SUV. You won’t be asked to sell your fillings to pay down our debt to China (probably not, anyway). This doesn’t mean you have to like any given candidate, only that you don’t have to hate your neighbor because Glenn Beck or Ed Schultz (two terrible reasons to do anything, truth be told) told you that you had to for the good of your country.
None of this means, of course, that you should toss your hands up in the air and give up on the political process. In fact, it’s imperative that you don’t. Let’s face it, if you’ve taken the time to read this much of this post after seeing the title, you have a greater sense of democratic responsibility than at least 80% of our country’s population. It’s people like you that we need to wade through all the garbage that’s accumulated around the act of taking in a political campaign and make a decision based upon carefully considered information, and not make the easy decision to let soundbites and corporately purchased commentary do your thinking for you. If this sounds sanctimonious or too Pollyanna for your tastes, too bad. It’s the truth. And in any case, you’re going to need a little optimism if you’re going to survive the next three months. Well, that and some good wading boots.