Why the Campaign Is So Nasty

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Why should politicians respect one another when nobody respects politicians?

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If Campaign 2012 has begun to remind you of a particularly gory car accident -- the kind they showed you in driver's ed to scare you into white-knuckling the steering wheel at 10 and 2 -- you're not alone. Just days ago, Paul Ryan's selection as GOP vice presidential nominee was hailed as the harbinger of a more elevated discussion. "He does not demonize his opponents. He understands that honorable people can have honest differences. And he appeals to the better angels of our nature," Mitt Romney said in introducing him to America. But instead, things seem to be worse than ever: Vice President Joe Biden appeared to suggest that Republicans would return African Americans to bondage, while Romney campaigns aggressively on a demagogic and widely debunked claim about Obama's changes to welfare policy.

But the actual instances of perfidy, disingenuousness and character assassination -- which, surely, have always been staples of the political process -- have been vastly dwarfed by all the kvetching. Here's Romney in Ohio the other day: "This is what an angry and desperate Presidency looks like. President Obama knows better, promised better and America deserves better. ... Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago." The Obama campaign responded that Romney's comments "seemed unhinged, and particularly strange coming at a time when he's pouring tens of millions of dollars into negative ads that are demonstrably false."

The media, too, has jumped on the this-sucks bandwagon. "We can't, as a country, keep doing this," Brian Williams pleaded, leading a parade of pearl-clutching pundits decrying the "vitriol," "ugliness," "nastiness" and "escalation" of the "poisonous" campaign. There's little analysis devoted to why things are this way, and what there is seems to leave the blame at the doorsteps of the politicians and their staffs. The pols believe outrage, manufactured or real, works as a tactic, revving up the base and pricking the stubborn will of the apathetic. They actually don't like or respect each other, and therefore mean what they say, the meaner the better. They are, in sum, as nasty as they want to be.

But if the campaigns are cynical, disrespectful and angry, it seems to me they are only reflecting the vibe they're getting from the electorate. Why should politicians respect one another when nobody respects politicians? Think how off-key the campaigns would sound if they really were all high road, all the time. They'd be dramatically out of sync with a population that largely thinks -- or knows -- that things are bad all over. According to Gallup's tracking, 75 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going, a number that, measured monthly, hasn't been below 60 since 2007 and hasn't been a minority view since 2003. With a multifariously terrible economy and a gridlocked Congress, they're not wrong to be pessimistic.

A poll released this week of the 40 percent of adult citizens who probably won't vote in November found that most were burned out on the political process: "59 percent said the reason they don't pay attention is that nothing ever gets done - that it's a bunch of empty promises," according to Suffolk University, which conducted the poll for USA Today. A campaign that didn't reflect that wide-ranging cynicism, or kept the debate confined to the level of high-minded policy-paper sessions and feel-good positivity, would get nowhere with the people most disinclined to believe political promises, or their voting counterparts. When you feel like you're in a handbasket on the highway to hell, the last thing you want to hear is an airy, abstract policy discussion. You want someone who feels the heat as acutely as you do, and hopefully gives you someone to blame.

If the campaigns have taken the low road this election season, they're only meeting voters where they live. The electorate is, more than usual, hungry for blood. It's easy, from the comfort of D.C., to forget how hurt and angry people are out there, or to be discomfited by the torches-and-pitchforks mood of the unwashed masses. But if politics has become a brutal cage fight, the likeliest explanation is that it's only responding to demand.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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