Campaign 2010: No Way to Run a Democracy

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Two years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a piece about Sarah Palin's unsettling ignorance of the work-product of the United States Supreme Court. Based upon Katie Couric's famous pre-election interview of the Republican vice-presidential candidate on the eve of the 2008 election, the column was titled "Democracy Demands Wisdom," which was self-explanatory then and remains so now. I came back to that simple concept--we need smarter, not dumber, elected officials in Washington, and we need to own up to our own persistent failure to ensure that this is so—in my first column as a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com. And I revisit it today on the eve of the 2010 midterm election.

By the time it's all over on Tuesday night, more than $4 billion, by far a record, will reportedly have been spent this cycle on politicaI campaigns. Four billion dollars for a midterm campaign! It's an obscene amount--that George Will says otherwise tells you all you need to know--but of course to the special interests and their lobbyists is "a trifle which they take from a large box," as Peter O'Toole put it in Lawrence of Arabia. Four billion dollars, we realize with despair in our hearts, is a pittance when you consider the amount of taxpayer money doled out each year by the federal government to the very same all-too-often secret donors who now are flooding our airwaves and mail boxes with lies, damned lies, and sketchy statistics.

Indeed, the inumerable variations of campaign advertising this election season have been particularly nasty, brutish, and short. Americans have been innundated with the dark art of what philosopher-journalist Walter Lippmann once called the "chattering gossips, unscrupulous liars, congenital liars, feeble-minded people, prostitute minds [and] corrupting agents" who create "public sentiment." Four billion dollars. All that money. And what did it deliver to our homes and computers? It bought plenty of unhinged accusations, didn't it? And more than its share of idiot candidates. It bought fear and prejudice. And ads worthy of ridicule on YouTube. All that coin, and all those negative buys, may have influenced an election or two (or 10 or 20) but sure didn't bring much context or perspective, let alone useful wisdom, to the American people. 

I write today having just returned from the garbage can in my kitchen, where I have just deposited, unread, another half-dozen election-related mailings sent out en masse this election year. They come to the house each day, desperate and cynical solicitations, all facilely extolling the virtues of one candidate or cynicallly demonizing the record of another. These pamphets and placards, these silly four-colored tracts, these impromptu economic bailouts for the Post Office and printing companies, these demeaning assaults upon people of good faith. How many forests of how many trees were wiped away to send this crap to potential voters? And how many more will fall when the 2012 presdential campaign spends $10 billion to spread the slanders around?

I write with the television on in the background, emitting the sound of one rude and misleading campaign advertisement after another. That these ads flourish tells you they succeed. That they succeed tells you that we are still, despite all the information and knowledge surrounding us, largely an ignorant and incurious people, willing to be eagerly certain about our political choices but unwilling to spend the time it takes to truly understand or explain why. Thanks to Chief Justice John Roberts and his fellow conseratives on the United States Supreme Court, thanks to the Citizens United ruling last January, these destructive advertisements now may be funded secretly by corporations and individuals. Democracy demands wisdom. But it doesn't provide a flashlight. 

In my neck of the woods--I guess because there is enough Citizens United money floating around to look beyond the coming election--we already are accursed with ads seeking the repeal of the Democratic health care reform law. The "viagra for rapists" ads, for example, are instant classics, not just because they are so insulting but also because of their gall. Along the same lines, I saw an ad last week in which a nitwit candidate wanted me to consider him an honorable man because he had belatedly owned up to lying about a very serious matter. Never mind whether "Mr. Vote For Me I Own Up To My Bad Lies" can win--how about explaining to me why anyone would vote for him and thus settle for such low expectations for public office. Surely we can do better, no? 

I am no political theorist. But here is a concept that seems obvious to me. If you populate government with ignorant people, or with people who avowedly disrespect government, or with people whose background and experience and public integrity in no way merit political office, sooner or later you will have worse governance. The same is true if you elect leaders following political campaigns that overflow with hysteria. Four billion dollars spent to scare voters. Four billion spent to preserve the lobbyists' hold on Washington. Garbage in, garbage out. "Everything is amplified," Jon Stewart said Saturday at his "Restore Sanity" rally, "so nothing gets heard."   

Indeed, the 2010 crop of campaign insanity, unleashed by Citizens United, explains precisely why the "Restore Sanity" rally with Stewart and Stephen Colbert has resonated so well. A great many people, and especially a great number of younger people, want adults in Washington who will act with foresight and selflessness. And this includes the media estalishment. The ralliers are skeptical of a politics-centric media they see in self-sustaining partnership with the engines of the political campaigns. These people want smart candidates. They want even smarter elected officials. And they don't want to feel like they are being played by Establishment journalists. They don't see the wisdom they know democracy needs in and around Washigton; instead, they see high comedy, a tragi-comedy really, unfolding on their watch.

Democracy demands wisdom. But this year, all democracy seems to have offered is Christine O'Donnell, with her proud ignorance, and Alvin Greene, with his own baffling riff, and dozens of other candidates unworthy of our respect, let alone our votes. It has given us a candidate, California's Meg Whitman, who wants so desperately to be elected that she was willing to spend nearly $200 million of her own money to do so, a fact which ought to legally disqualify her from politics again. And it has given us Sarah Palin, the avatar of the naton's latest know-nothing movement, looming in the wings. Friends, this is no way to run a democracy, much less a wise one.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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