Greencastle, Ind. – Writing in this space at the beginning of the presidential campaign — what feels like a hundred years ago — I suggested that this year’s election cycle was shaping up to be “a season in hell.” Today, with two weeks to go before Election Day, that assessment seems quaint.
Attacking an opponent’s character is, of course, nothing new to American political campaigns. Character assassination and smear campaigns have a long and storied history in U.S. electoral politics.
But, in recent weeks, as the McCain camp tries to gain some traction after the short-lived, post-convention bounce Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination gave to the Republican ticket, the campaign rhetoric has grown increasingly divisive, inflammatory and downright hostile.
A new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) found that in recent weeks the media narrative has been dominated by stories detailing the negative tone taken up by both campaigns.
According to the PEJ: “The biggest component of that storyline — attacks often focused on the candidates’ character and associations — accounted for 27 percent of the week’s campaign newshole. Most of them emanated from McCain, and they included efforts to link Obama to 60s radical Bill Ayers. As the week went on, the anger boiling up at Republican rallies also became part of the story.”
The electorate’s anger and frustration is completely understandable. Over the course of the past eight years, the American people have been lied to repeatedly; their goodwill and hard work have been exploited by war makers and war profiteers; and their health, well being and economic security has been sacrificed on the altar of the free market.
The Wall Street bailout scheme simply added insult to injury. This latest bit of corporate welfare is just one more manifestation of the democratic deficit that afflicts American politics and public policy.
While the American people have good reason to be angry, the McCain campaign’s deliberate efforts to stoke that anger for political advantage is inexcusable. The volatile mix of racism, Islamophobia and fear mongering McCain and Palin have used in recent weeks is reckless and incendiary.
In an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, author and one-time McCain supporter Frank Schaeffer summed up these concerns this way: “John McCain and Sarah Palin, you are playing with fire, and you know it. You are unleashing the monster of American hatred and prejudice, to the peril of all of us. You are doing this in wartime. You are doing this as our economy collapses. You are doing this in a country with a history of assassinations.”
McCain’s performance in the final presidential debate illustrates how immune the Republican presidential candidate is to these very real concerns. McCain is content to “work the refs”: lashing out at the press corps when it suits him and then courting the press for sympathetic coverage.
Whether he’s taking up more conciliatory tones or whining about his hurt feelings, McCain is oblivious to the caldron of racial animosity, economic disenfranchisement and religious intolerance his campaign is stirring up — with the usual assist from talk radio, FOX News and the conservative blogosphere.
Regrettably, this toxic atmosphere may linger long after all the votes are counted. The fear mongering and scare tactics employed by the McCain campaign and its surrogates are more than mere distractions from substantive political issues. This strategy may soon spin out of control, unleashing a fresh wave of intolerance at a moment when America can ill afford to remain mired in a politics of fear.
Throughout this election cycle, pollsters and pundits have suggested, just as they have for the past three or four presidential elections, that this year’s contest is the most important election in a generation. For once, perhaps, the chattering classes have got it right.
Given the sorry state of the economy, failed diplomacy and military adventurism overseas, and the woeful condition of civil liberties here at home, the outcome of this election will undoubtedly have profound implications for this and future generations.
And yet, with so much at stake, American political discourse — much of the campaign rhetoric itself and a great deal of the media coverage — has failed to rise to the occasion. Instead, the whispering campaign that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, whose motives and allegiances are suspect, continues to make headlines. That such utter nonsense dominates the political discussion at this late date would be laughable were it not so dangerous.
With millions being spent on negative campaign ads, poll-driven policymaking and “horse race” press coverage — all of which obscures rather than illuminates the momentous issues confronting our country — this year’s presidential election may, in James Madison’s words, prove to be “a prelude to a farce or a tragedy: or perhaps both.”
Kevin Howley is an associate professor of communication at DePauw University.