Complaints are the jet fuel of most conversations. Europeans love to tweak Americans as complainers, but they are not exactly famous for their longanimity. Americans complain about everything. One of our favorite targets: politics. As soon as we start discussing our politicians, it starts: How did we get such cowards for leaders? Why can't Washington figure out Economics 101? What happened to "America, your best friend and worst enemy"?
Ironically, one of the most vociferous complaints against our political class is that they are just too mean. They play rough with each other. Americans, who otherwise love a good fight, seem almost offended when their politicians have at it.
Recently, former first lady Barbara Bush, one of the most elegant and dignified personalities to grace Washington in years, remonstrated that this election was the meanest in memory, saying, "I think it's been the worst campaign I've ever seen in my life." The national water cooler meme for this year – and every election in my memory – is that politicians are too cruel, that the candidates of whichever party is out of power are bashing each other with reckless abandon, and that there are no limits. But is this really the case? Is this election really different than any of the others?
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Reason magazine reminds us that in one of the very first presidential campaigns, Thomas Jefferson was pilloried as a "fraud, a coward, a thief, and a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." John Adams, the opponent who hurled this invective, was similarly derided as blind, bald, crippled and toothless – and an American political tradition was born.
Over the years, presidential and congressional candidates have suffered every possible indignity. Accusations against those seeking federal office have targeted alleged sexual offenses, business practices, personal hygiene, sedition and every other possible malfeasance. The ability to quickly disseminate printed publications exacerbated the vitriol at the turn of the 20th century, but the advent of television ramped up the pandemonium to another level in the 1960s.
When President Lyndon Johnson's infamous 1964 ad implying his opponent Barry Goldwater would cause a nuclear war hit the airwaves, American politics sunk to new lows, or so we thought. Hoping to replicate the visceral impact of that commercial, a new breed of political consultant was born, and the quadrennial complaint that "this is the worst election I have ever seen" was incubated.
During the 1970s, political mass mailings became the new vehicle for personal, direct and intense communication. The breathless prose of direct mail letters, with each sentence a new paragraph and each paragraph a stentorian shriek, quickly became the best way to spread political opprobrium. Soon arrived a much more lethal virus – the Internet. With the ability to instantly spread acrid and fatuous venom to hundreds of millions of eyeballs, the horror of politics invaded every peaceful hamlet and home. As the cable news networks boomed, with Fox leading the way, millions of Americans added to their daily ingestion of political scuttlebutt.
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We complain that our politics is nastier than ever before, but is that really the case, or is it just that we have more access to politics and our politicians than we did in the past? In fact, our politicians are far more polite than any of their ancestors. The acrimony and partisanship displayed in Washington is hardly more shocking than the fisticuffs that regularly erupted on the floor of the Congress more than 150 years ago. But in those days, there was no CSPAN. When a challenger questioned an incumbent's marital fidelity or patrilineal provenance, it was often heard by only a few dozen spectators, not blasted on Twitter to billions of people.
The calumny that passes for political discourse is not necessarily more coarse and venal. It is just more accessible. And that engenders complaints and worry on the part by those citizens who fear that the mudslinging of lesser candidates will diminish the electoral chances of the eventual nominee. This year, that anxiety burdens most heavily those hoping to unseat President Obama. A nervous electorate seems to intuit that our republic cannot well endure another four years of his leadership. Yet, many political pundits, including yours truly, have expressed concern that the nastiness of the campaign has diminished and debased the remaining Republican challengers. Unbridled neo-socialist attacks from Newt Gingrich on Mitt Romney have unsettled the Republican base. Super-PAC attacks on Rick Santorum and scathing aspersions cast at Ron Paul have devalued their brand. Many have concluded that the Republican bank account has been depleted for this election. They are wrong.
Our primary election season gets rough. But once a party nominates its candidate, with rare exceptions, all factions fall in line, and that party marches with unity. Much in the same way that a sports franchise can have some near-death moments during the regular season and still emerge as a national champion in the playoffs, so too the terror of the primary campaign will be long forgotten by a party united to stop a second Obama presidential term. Republicans only need to recall the rancor of the 2008 Democratic primary campaign to know that, once a nominee emerges, all wounds will be healed, and the greater mission of rebuffing the most liberal president in American history will supersede any previous primary quests.
Yes, this is indeed the dirtiest, most treacherous and insidious campaign in our memory. But that's only because we forgot the last one and haven't yet seen the next one.