The voting is done and perhaps—mercifully—we all will get a break from the inescapable, incessant and irritability-inducing political commercials.
Realistically, of course, so long as there are lawyers and ill-tempered losers an election race here or there will grimly grind on, until some judge finally makes it stop. And go away. Until next time.
But I write today about the election just concluded. For the better part of half a century it has been my role to cover politicians and elections. As the 19th century writer Finley Peter Dunne said, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” There’s always been a mean streak among the political class, as they wage war with words.
As a longtime observer, though, I can say it’s definitely getting worse. There was a time when mean-spiritedness and—say it plainly—outright lies mostly played out on the national stage. Closer to home, in state and local races, temperatures generally stayed cooler and rhetoric was less harsh.
The ads come loaded with toxic words. “Liar” is almost one of the least obnoxious. A given candidate may be portrayed not as soft on crime—a term that goes way back—but rather as favoring violent crime. Racial code has been around forever, but this time around nasty claims were more explicit than implicit. Even candidates’ health conditions were fair game for derision.
Social media? What a sewer. Paid ads portrayed political opponents not as Americans with a different opinion, but as evil. Sinister music. Darkened photographs. Hide the kids for protection. The evil-doers are coming for you.
Even worse is what social media promotes, a cellar-dweller environment suited to low commentary. Here’s one I saw. A close shot of a pair of blue jeans, with a construction belt holding a dangling hammer. The caption: “Open carry, San Francisco style.”
Certainly, there’s blame for politicians and their tacticians. Sinking into the slime is a choice.
Question: Why do they choose to go low?
Answer: Because it works.
Which brings to mind another old phrase, from the cartoon strip Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
If the nastiness—name calling, lies, presenting opponents as evil and traitorous—didn’t work and backfired, politicians would stop it in a heartbeat. They do it because their audience—that’s us—is all ears for the fight.
Perhaps it’s not surprising. When I was a kid in the 1950s and early ‘60s, people routinely dressed up, and dressed modestly. They spoke gently and without profanity with each other, particularly in mixed company. They knew and practiced proper manners, at the table and elsewhere. Kids were expected to behave. Consequences followed misconduct.
Mind you, lots of things needed to change back then, and did, from the civil rights movement to the women’s movement and beyond.
But along the way our culture has coarsened, people have turned against each other, and both sides agree—for very different reasons—that America stands at a crossroads.
Fixing it is hopeless if we’ve lost the ability to treat each other with respect and to speak to each other with civility—to disagree without being disagreeable. To understand and accept that, as Americans, politics does not make us enemies, but rather friends and neighbors who hold some contrary views.
I would like to be optimistic.
But I’m not.
Today’s society, with each cycle, retreats more and more into divisive camps with social media and negative advertising acting as an incendiary agent. It’s a wonder there’s not more violence.
Of this I’m certain. People of goodwill, no matter their individual political persuasion, are the only hope for hauling the Disunited States of America back from the brink. To change behaviors among the political class, first the people must change their own.
Start here. At your home. Look around, at your kids and grandkids and siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. This is a four-walls issue. Fix yourself and your family. Be an example, in public. Call for more civility by modeling it.
One final old saying: “I must hasten to catch up with the others, for I am their leader.”
Politicians followed society into decline, they didn’t cause it.
Show them a better way.
William Barth is the former Editor of the Beloit Daily News, and a member of the Wisconsin Newspaper Hall of Fame. Write to him at email@example.com