Monday, August 18, 2008

Playing off Political Fear

I’ve been reading Edward Larson’s book A Magnificent Catastrophe, which chronicles the strange, but almost all-too-familiar events that transpired during our country’s first presidential campaign. The main contenders were John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Back then the parties were divided mainly on issues of big government (Adams’ Federalists) versus individual freedom (Jefferson’s Republicans) so the main hot issues weren’t quite the same as we have today, but some of them are pretty close.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the use of rhetoric to advance one candidate over the other. As the U.S. approached the 1800 election, France was going through one of its most turbulent decades. The French Revolution was marked by the people’s attempt to remove all traces of monarchical governance, and as such they received sympathy from Jefferson and the Republicans of his day. When the French Revolution devolved into what most would consider full-fledged anarchy, it provided Federalists with some much needed ammunition to malign the Republican cause, especially, when, in early 1800, Napoleon took advantage of the chaos and declared himself Emperor.

Fisher Ames, a Federalist, wrote that if Jefferson were elected “the people would be crushed, as in France, under tyranny more vindictive, unfeeling, and rapacious than that of Tiberius, Nero or Caligula.” It’s one of those statements loaded with such unfair and bloated rhetoric, it’s hard to know where to start. Let me begin by saying first that I have no real compunction to defend Jefferson. If anything I’d have to agree with many of the then federalists that Jefferson was a bit naïve when he defended some of the overt excesses of the French Revolution, because to him, the end (freedom) justified the even the excesses (killing innocent in the streets).

Having conceded that, however, do we find that once Jefferson took office the nation went to hell in a hand basket? Did Americans suffer under tyranny? The short answer is no.

The thing that is so disturbing is that such an educated scholar as Ames could fall to using such manipulative and fallacious rhetoric. Not only did he say that America would be in a worse state than France, but it would be even worse than Rome under Caligula and Nero. This is what English teachers may respectfully call excessive hyperbole, generous preschool teachers call exaggeration, and honest everyday citizens call a bald-faced lie.

I guess I’m bringing this up because in this season, let’s do our best not to let these so-called experts tell us what’s going to happen and not be swayed by bloated rhetoric when we step into the voting booth in November.

Far too many Republicans are worried that if Obama is elected militant Muslims will take over the world, and far too many Democrats are worried that unless a Democrat is elected, we will become the Fourth Reich.

How about we start voting our consciences, instead of voting out of fear of what could happen? Instead of letting this (in most cases) fictitious bogeyman lurking in the future drive us from voting who we really think would be best.

Obama has touted that we need to have not a Red or Blue States of America, but a United States of America. It’s a funny notion being that in the same breath he’ll say we need to pull out of Iraq and fight global warming, which I believe, in spite of the incessant drone of the media, are both blue issues, but I agree with him that this country isn’t supposed to be Red vs. Blue. I think the country would be much better served if we started seriously voting for who we agree with, over who looks presidential or who would make a good buddy, who lost enough weight, or who has the potential to win. Our country would be better served if instead of Red or Blue, we had ten colors to choose from, or none, and just voted.

3 comments:

Jay Smorey said...

There a second facet that plays hand-in-hand to this that I think presents a rather difficult hurdle, especially in light of the great percentage of new voters during this particular election. With all personal alliances laid aside, at just the level in which issues are presented from the candidate/party to the voter, Democrat issues tend to connect with real life, while Republican issues take a good level of investigation and thought before one comes to an understanding of why they may or may not be right. As such, I think it is fair to say that, merely at the level of communication of the issues, those frequently espoused by the Democrat party are more personable and pragmatic to the common person and political virgin, while Republican positions tend to be more distant and impersonal.

Perfect example: health care. At the risk of major oversimplication, the Democrat position AS HEARD by the common person is "Health care is a matter of humanity, and should therefore be made available to everyone, especially those who struggle." Now, the average joe does not spend his free time thinking about the consequences of such a policy other than the fact that people will be getting health care.

But can anyone summarize a typical Republican policy on the same issue in the same number of words or less? In short, we could say that Republicans hold that the individual purchaser should be empowered by being given more choices. But what choices? What do they look like? Will insurance companies actually make the necessary changes? And even at a slightly deeper level, if the goal is to reduce government involvement, how are these insurance companies "encouraged" to provide more choices?

Maybe it is just that the Friedmanite "supply and demand" policies just seem distant and disconnected with daily life for the common voter...and I'm saying this as a dedicated little "l" big "R" Republi-tarian.

So my point is really this: In order to get people away from the reductionism and pigeon-holing of candidates into such polarized consequential views and getting them to start looking at policies, I think candidates and media figures of both parties, especially the Republican party, need to spend more time focusing on how issues are packaged and presented so as to motivate voters to think more deeply about the issues, but also present them in a way that immediately makes a connection with daily life.

Ben said...

I beleive the Latin on the Virgina flag (Jeffersons home state) translates to something like "Death to all Tyrants." Jefferson himself said that the tree of liberty should be periodically watered with the blood of tyrannts. What I think this nation needs is to heed dem words and have a good ole fashion tyrannt killin!


just kidding

Michial said...
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