Campaign 2010: No Way to Run a Democracy

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. 

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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