The Lost High Road
Somewhere along the line, I picked up a love of philosophy and political rhetoric. However, these interests have a particular flavor. It is the flavor of highfalutin' words, clear reasoning, and incisive criticism of an opponent's positions. That is to say, the academic study of politics, not necessarily politics as it is practiced today. Mind you, classical references to the Greeks or the Romans can still be heard from our legislators in the late hours on C-SPAN. And at least on the surface, American politics is about ideas regarding how the government should behave and how people should live their lives. However, in regular practice, thanks to the television, the 24-hour news cycle, and the irrational belief that "the personal is political," American representative government has strayed a long way from the Greek or Roman forms of rhetoric and politics.
Father Dan suggests that such ideas are passé, naive, or both. And it's a pity, really, because with no serious rivals left, and with our unchallenged military, economic, and social leadership in the world, one would like to think that a nation with serious responsibilities would have a serious political discourse to match. Alas, one would be thinking wrongly to assume such a thing.
A friend of mine tried to convince me a dozen years ago that "philosophy has nothing to do with politics." I was offended by her statement, and refused to believe it. After all, the political fights of this generation and those that went on before HAVE dealt with the behavior of government and its relationship with the people. One would like to think that there was something behind it besides gossip, innuendo, and trashy insults. However, the longer I read and hear the nation's political theater, the more depressed I get because it appears that my friend is almost right.
Almost right, that is, because there IS a philosophy at work in American politics, and that philosophy can be expressed as follows: "If you do not like the political ideas of your opponents, you must constantly and relentlessly attack their character, truthfully or not, to undermine their credibility and ability to campaign or govern."
Note that this has nothing to do with the merits of your opponent's positions, or the possible outcomes of those positions--which should be more important--but those are irrelevant. Your enemy is EVIL because they belong to a different party. They oppose what YOU believe, and therefore they must be DESTROYED by any means necessary--lies, cheap shots, or dirty laundry that has little to nothing to do with how smart their political ideas are.
The latest victim of this "philosophy" is Sarah Palin, who has decided to leave the Alaska governorship after a vicious presidential campaign and the aftereffects thereof. She's getting out of Dodge while she's still got some dignity left...and even so, she'll be the butt of nasty political jokes long after she's gone. And it's a damn shame to me, because she was willing to take on her political opponents on matters of policy that are vital to our national economy right now. But no: it was more important to mock her Christian faith, her quaint accent, her lack of international travel (George Washington never left the States, by the way--neither did Lincoln), her wardrobe, her family's personal tragedies, or her lack of an Ivy League pedigree. So: another conservative politician goes down in flames, to the great delight of the TV pundits; and another several dozen or hundred or thousand serious citizens think twice about running for office for fear of the trashing that might face them...which is the whole point of the trashing.
I don't really care "who started it." I'm more interested in who's going to take a shot at stopping it. You can find examples of dirty politics in America going back to at least 1800. In the television era, one might find mobsters enforcing dead men voting to elect Kennedy or Nixon bugging his enemies to take an election he was likely to win anyway. I don't care. Would it kill our politicians to ATTEMPT the high road? And if someone DOES take the high road--say, by criticizing someone in power about their policies--would it kill the other guy to respond in kind rather than look for dirt as a way to discredit the criticism?
Of course we do have such things--the televised debates, which are a choreographed exercise in policy trial balloons and sound bites--and they bore the public to death because they ARE so scripted. How do we overcome such things? I don't know, but I'd like to see it tried. Call it principled naiveity.