Archived Story

What is beneath political nastiness?

Published 9:54am Friday, September 7, 2012

Column: Notes from Home

As images of destruction and violence scroll across the screen, an ominous voice — male — growls out at me from the TV: “If [insert politician’s name here] is elected, our enemies to the north will destroy us!” Cowering on the sofa, fearing an invasion by bloodthirsty Canadian hordes, I hold my children close, which is awkward, because they’re all young adults.

Then the scene shifts, and a voice — female — whispers as photos of families and tacky tract houses slide by: “So you think you know [insert politician’s name here]? Did you know he slapped his mother!” I grab the cats (the kids having fled upstairs) and hide under a blanket while the TV set continues to spill out its vitriol.

The dark side of American politics has boiled to the surface again.

It’s not as if we have no examples of other ways to discuss political differences. Colleagues at the school where I teach, for example, hold a variety of political perspectives, ranging all over the ideological map. We do not stop ourselves from discussing politics, or from being passionate about issues, but we are tactful and reasonable when politics come up in conversation.

Surrounded by scholars and academics, it’s no surprise that reason matters just as much as passion. And there are plenty of times when, despite our different ideologies, we find we come to the same conclusions — that’s the difference, I suppose, between conversations governed by careful thinking combined with real listening and people screaming without listening while insulting each other in front of cameras.

Unfortunately, political campaigns are often more like screaming, dominated by negative claims and insults. Candidates and their minions run down opponents, accusing them of just about anything that would disgust or anger voters. While campaigning, politicians don’t seem capable of showing respect for anyone who doesn’t agree with them.

Of course, that the current cycle of campaign speeches, slogans and advertisements attempt to manipulate voters through nasty accusations is no surprise. It’s ugly today because it’s been ugly before and getting ugly almost always works. Today’s nastiness is actually pretty tame by historical standards.

Candidates facing voters since 1789 have been accused of everything from perjury to murder to adultery (long before Bill Clinton ran for president).

There’s something else, though, that’s going on underneath this nastiness that is more disturbing. When we are manipulated by so much negative campaigning, we run the risk of saying no to one thing without clearly saying yes to anything else.

When we clearly say yes there is positive content, an expression of support for something. A no by itself is empty. It’s like that parable of Jesus, about the person who expels a demonic force but then does nothing to fill the space in their souls left behind, leaving an empty stage for those demonic forces to quickly reclaim.

In addition to leaving people’s choices empty, when Anybody but _____ is used as the dominant mode in political campaigns, it creates enemies, not an atmosphere in which differences can be discussed, compromises forged and decisions made. Anybody but ____ can mask extremist candidates and policies that voters don’t actually support.

There’s not much we ordinary voters can do about this negativity. I mean, if we’re going to punish the candidates who go negative by, somewhat ironically, refusing to vote for them, we aren’t going to have all that many left to choose from.

One thing I am doing in response to these tactics is thinking about what a yes to any of them would mean. This doesn’t simply mean parroting the talking points of politicians. It means sorting through the claims and counter-claims until I can distill some kind of policy or position that makes sense so I can decide whether or not that’s the direction I want to go. And I’ll share those thoughts with you over the next few weeks. Hopefully my thoughts will help you figure out who or what you need to say yes to.

Next Friday: If we said yes to the Democrats …


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.