Does (American-style) Democracy Work?

“If they lie about us, then we will correct the record,” Obama said. “But this election is too important, too serious, to be playing silly games.”

The media has been all about the campaign lies this year., a site with an august history, is probably getting more hits this month than it ever has. Heard an interesting interview on Talk of the Nation yesterday about the legacy of Lee Atwater, the success of the Willy Horton ad, and its effect on Republican campaigning. The argument was that Republicans have no problem playing to the base instincts of the populace in order to win an election: all’s fair in love and war. Democrats have found no way to battle against this, and at least traditionally have not engaged in the same kinds of behavior (coded race-baiting, fear tactics, wrapping yourself in the flag, etc.).

I had been tracking on this and was deeply gratified that this election (I thought) would be different. I saw no way that McCain would turn to these tactics, after the way they had been used against him in the past by fellow Republicans. I’m still a little shocked at how wrong I was. Both campaigns have stretched the truth, but that McCain continues to claim–not just in ads but in interviews long after it has been shown by nonpartisan groups to be an outright lie–that Obama is seeking to raise taxes for most people, or that he wanted sex ed for kindergarteners, is way beyond the pale. He knows this, but has subscribed to the belief that it’s OK to lie, as long as you win the election, a bargain that has worked well for the Republicans in the past three decades. It is perhaps most ironic because of his “I’d rather lose the election” talk. Obviously, he’s willing to lie about the issues in order to win.

I’m not unsympathetic. After all, how do you convince the 95% of the voting population that will be helped by Obama’s tax cuts that they should instead pay more so that the top 5% can pay less. The richest 1% in America are now paying way less tax than they did in the 70s, while the middle class is paying way more. The US has a ridiculous (and preposterously trending) Gini coefficient. Really, there are two choices, either lie now about your own policy (“Read my lips”) or tell the truth about your policies, and lie about your opponent’s.

I talked to a colleague who was convinced that the economic situation means that Obama can’t lose. I’m not so sure. The Republicans have a playbook that works, that plays on the fears of the undecided voters, who tend to be–sorry–pretty uninformed and lacking common sense. They also have this odd schizophrenia in their appeal. A candidate who claims you aren’t really rich until you are making $5 million a year, and then suggests that Democrats are elitist, seems to be running on a campaign of “rationality is outdated.” And maybe it is.

But they do manage to collect a very large group of people who tend to be less educated than Obama supporters, and less wealthy. In some ways, I am the typical Obama supporter: a professor with an income well above the national average. (Professors disproportionately support Obama.) Some of the things that educated folks like about Obama–that he is able to articulate clear policy positions rather than playing to fears and “values”–may end up losing him the race. Undecideds don’t care about issues, they want to see a fight, and the bloodier the better.

Democrats are beginning to oblige, much to my disappointment. In recent television ads, Obama is suggesting that if McCain were president, seniors would have lost their social security checks in the current Wall Street meltdown. This goes beyond stretching the truth–it’s just plain wrong. Future retirees may have lost a significant amount of their benefits, but that’s not what the ad says. It preys on the fears of a demographic Obama desperately needs to win. And what I thought was looking like a Swiftboating effort looks to be taking hold, as does a call to release McCain’s medical records. (The latter is a borderline issue. I think most voters can handicap McCain’s likely survival rate, as the oldest president, who has already suffered medical issues, and is exhibiting some dementia already, without detailed medical evidence that wouldn’t add much to the discussion anyway.)

On one hand, the idea that McCain/Palin would come into the White House based on a campaign of lies, fear, and doubt is extraordinarily depressing. If the Bush elections were not a clear enough indication that our campaigning system is broken, a McCain win would be. I am not one of those people who says “I’m moving to Canada.” Or, rather, I am, but that’s just because Canada seems like a nice place to live sometimes. However, if McCain wins, I will be disappointed not just in the outcome, but in the process that has allowed Americans to vote against their own interest, and the interests in the country. If McCain won because people believed in his policies, I would have far less of a problem–compromise is at the heart of a democracy. But to win on the basis of deception dishonors not only his own legacy, but the country he seeks to lead.

Now it seems that some in Obama’s camp are willing to jump down that slope with McCain, hitting back with untrue ads, even as Obama says he wants to stay above the fray. If Obama wins by misleading the public, it will likewise shake my faith in our democracy. There is enough to attack McCain on that is true, there is no need to willfully misconstrue his remarks (as he has done with Obama: pigs and lipstick–no one ever said Americans were not gullible), or make up policies. Just tell Americans the truth: that McCain wants to outlaw abortion and gay marriage, he won’t negotiate with enemies like Iran, he wants working class Americans to pay more tax so that the rich and corporations can pay less, he is uninformed on the economy, doesn’t know who is in charge in Spain, or that there is no Czechoslovakia, or that Iran isn’t training al Qaeda, he is self-made only in that he married into wealth, he, like Bush, is proud of his lack of intellectual pursuit–all of these things are true, and still speak to his inability to lead. Heck, clips of McCain himself saying tremendously stupid things are probably the best attack ad. No need to do voiceovers or text: just show Americans what he has in store for them.

Or better yet, suck it up, correct the lies, and tell the American people what you are going to do to help get us out of this mess. The ideal: that Obama is elected, and manages to do so without giving into the mud-slinging that both candidates said they would avoid.

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  1. Indie Voter
    Posted 9/24/2008 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    So Republicans tend to be “less educated” than Democrats, huh? Most of the Republicans I know are dentists, physicians, attorneys, and senior vice presidents in many different industries. I also know a number of Democrats who do not have college degrees. Please don’t make sweeping generalizations like some other “typical Obama supporters”. As an educated person, you should know better.

  2. Indie Voter
    Posted 9/24/2008 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    One more thing: as an Independent (and undecided) voter, I do care about the issues. The reason I’m still undecided is because I agree with Obama on some issues, and McCain on others. I don’t appreciate anyone telling me how I should vote, and I also don’t appreciate the fact that some people think they “know” me, and that somehow, this gives them the right to judge me.

  3. alex
    Posted 9/24/2008 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know about the education levels of Republicans and Democrats more generally, and made no claim regarding that. But despite your anecdotal evidence, one of the starkest differences in support for McCain or Obama is how much education you have. A Gallup poll from earlier this year showed that those with a HS diploma or less favored McCain (46% to 40%), while those with a postgraduate degree favored Obama (52% to 42%). Obviously, as those numbers indicate, there are uneducated Obama supporters and educated McCain supporters, but there is also clearly a correlation between education and the candidate someone is likely to support.

    To reiterate, this isn’t about the parties: I am an independent, and know a number of very bright Republicans as well as Democrats. As an aside, the same poll indicated that in a theoretical match-up against Clinton, the education groups would be much closer, and indeed Clinton would win among the least educated group and McCain among the most educated (though only by a few points in each case). And when Gore ran, he was more popular among the most and least educated voters, but not the middle. So, I was only making a claim about these two candidates, in this election.

    This may be simply that McCain was near the bottom of his graduating class and Obama near the top of his, and so people vote for the person the perceive to be most like themselves. But I suspect–as I said above–that the major difference is that the emotional appeal is more effective among McCain supporters, who are less versed in analytical decision making.

    As far as being undecided this close to the election, there really are only a couple of possibilities: you haven’t taken the time to find out the candidates’ positions, or you are unable to reach a decision based on the data you have. We are all “undecided” to some extent until we step into the polling booth. And I could certainly be more sympathetic if the candidates were more similar in their approaches. But if you really are unable to make a decision based on the data you already have been presented–and by the behavior of the candidates in the race–I stand by my earlier suggestion, there’s something deficient in your reasoning.

  4. Indie Voter
    Posted 9/25/2008 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    In a way, I envy those who are either firmly on the left or firmly on the right – they always know where they stand. But for those of us who are centrists, things are not as clear-cut. At this point in time, I am still undecided. I assure you that there is nothing deficient in my reasoning – I will most likely make my decision following the debates. And even then it will still come down to holding my nose with one hand and filling out the ballot with the other.

  5. alex
    Posted 9/29/2008 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    I worry about the terms “left” and “right”; “conservative” and “liberal” since they hide a lot of flaws. Being directly between the right and left in this country puts you in a very conservative position, and in the wrong plain all together.

    I have problems with policy positions in both campaigns. Voting is all about compromise. I know that someone that directly represents my positions would never be elected president.

    But particularly in this election it seems pretty clear how the candidates stack up on some of the deciding issues. It’s hard to straddle questions like US involvement in Iraq, economic policy, heathcare policy, ethics, and human and civil rights.

    On this last, I am disappointed in Obama’s willingness to give AT&T and others amnesty for violating the rights of its subscribers. But on this example (and similar examples) it’s not like McCain has done better.

    I frankly question whether McCain has his wits about him. It’s a sacred cow, given that demographics of voting, to suggest that someone is too old to lead, but the last thing we need is Reagan redux: someone in the White House who is no longer mentally competent, leaving power to whoever can grab it.

    And if McCain were to die–not beyond consideration for a 71-year-old, the oldest candidate to run for a first-term presidency–we are left with Palin, who not only demonstrates a lack of judgment on McCain’s part, but a frightening prospect for US president. How can we elect someone to that office who believes that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time? We’ll become a beacon of religious extremism around the world–a label we are already trying to shake off with a current president who has called out involvement in Iraq a “Crusade.”

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