Recently, my wife and I were fortunate enough to have a vacation in Italy. On that trip we met many Italians (with whom my wife could converse quite well). One in particular I remember because his English was good (my Italian is minimal, at best) and so we were able to have a long conversation about political economic issues. But I especially remember him because he simply could not comprehend American political campaigns, with their emphasis on personal factors at the expense of issues.
Personal politics, the “Good ol’ Boy” strategy, emphasizes factors such as “likeability,” charisma, good looks, character, all of which can be quite positive. Such personal factors often influence people’s votes (remember JFK’s personal charm and good looks). But there usually is a negative, demagogic side to this, often amounting to character assassination. Ultimately, the problem is that this approach obscures the positions of the candidates on the concrete issues the new president will have to face.
The good ol’ boy appeals of George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and Sarah Palin in 2008 are nothing new. Personal appeals have characterized US presidential elections since 1800, which is also considered by some to be the dirtiest of all US Presidential elections. John Adams lost that election to Thomas Jefferson, largely because the Jeffersonians were adept character assassins. They were able to paint Adams as an elitist, not a man of the people. He was supposedly an enemy of democracy, interested in foisting an aristocratic/monarchial system on the new nation; at that time, such an approach would have been positively un-American. In contrast, Jefferson was portrayed as an egalitarian. As a result of the propaganda Jefferson won, narrowly, with a good deal of help from Alexander Hamilton who conspired against the candidate of his own Federalist Party. (Jeffersonian leaders later told John Quincy Adams that they knew that his father had never had anything against democracy.)
If a group of elite founders of this country could besmirch the reputation of one of our greatest founders, what candidate can escape such treatment? Yet many people in the United States vote based on such demagogic appeals. Candidates for President and Vice-President are members of the elite, but good ol’ boy political appeals obscure that reality.
During the American Revolution, John Adams inveighed against the irrationality of much political discourse. He wanted political decisions to be based on logical argumentation, not appeals to emotions. Adams expected too much; obviously personal factors are variables in people’s voting decisions. But the kernel of truth in what he argued is often missed in electoral campaigns. If the people are later to be able to hold elected officials accountable for their actions, the people need to know where the candidates stand on the issues.
Personal politics in 1800 severely disappointed Adams (he long begrudged his loss of a second term). He would also be disappointed in 21st century elections. Should we even care that Adams would disapprove of the continuation of personal politics? Yes. Not because he would disapprove, but because this aspect of our politics impedes democracy. Democracy (defined as popular sovereignty) requires more than elections in which there are winners and losers. It requires that the people be able to hold elected officials accountable for their actions.
Yet fear of the mobbish people, among other reasons, led the Constitutional Convention to craft a Constitution which makes accountability very difficult. Add elections decided by irrelevant personal factors and one is usually unable to determine what the people have voted for. We know who wins the election, but do we know what the victor will do? How many Americans knew what President Bush would do once in office? Both parties have played this personal game. But every time a candidate avoids discussing concrete policies, he/she demeans the democratic process. The more personal the campaign, the more difficult for the people to hold the winner accountable, in short, the more difficult for the people to rule. The people can hardly be expected to hold officials accountable for policies if negative campaigning has obscured the issues.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis, and the aging of Justices on the Supreme Court make it very probable that this election will have greater long-term impact than most Presidential elections. Will it be decided on the issues? The campaign so far leaves me pessimistic.
Some truly disturbing things have happened. Partisans calling Barack Obama a traitor, reportedly calling for him to be killed, even booing John McCain when he called for a respectful election campaign, make me wonder if democracy is in jeopardy. McCain should be praised for his opposition to the take-no-prisoners approach of some people at his rallies. But the recent attempts to portray Obama as a socialist is the functional equivalent of labeling John Adams an enemy of democracy. Such innuendo seems designed to portray Obama as somehow un-American.
The Swift Boat Veterans’ evisceration of the truth of John Kerry’s Viet-Nam war record was despicable. But that character assassination pales in comparison to recent events. A take-no-prisoners style of politics not only demonstrates scant regard for truthfulness but also demonstrates disrespect for foundational principles of democracy: the right to disagree respectfully and the right of the sovereign citizen to hold candidates accountable, based on their issue positions.