Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Do politicans and pundits think we're stupid?

I’m tired of seeing pundits support their particular political party the way rabid fans root for sports franchises -- or even worse, the way players themselves sometimes engage in such sporting events, with a kind of ruthless amorality. Truth and falsehood don’t matter. Only the bottom line. The win.

This is a mentality that seems to plague many of our athletes, even if the stakes are much lower. Think of those scrappy basketball players who inadvertently knock loose balls out of bounds and instinctively -- misleadingly -- blame nearby opponents for the infraction. Anything to get the ball back. Anything for the victory.

The Democratic and Republican talking points exemplify this same sensibility: victory at all costs, even if the price is the truth, or when it comes at the expense of an even-handed reading of contemporary political debates.

These folks must think we’re stupid.

To hear the Republicans tell it, Sarah Palin has all the “experience” she needs to be vice president, more “executive experience” than Barack Obama, and it is simply partisan politicking to question her readiness -- even in an age defined by global challenges that demand a rigorous handle on world affairs. Does circling the red wagons around a wild-card pick from Alaska (so that your party can "energize the base" and go after disaffected Clinton backers) really mean “Country First”?

According to Democrats, Obama represents “change,” and an African-American president would embody a massive change for America. No doubt. But just because he gives good speech, which is pretty clearly the case, doesn’t mean that Obama’s potential election will necessarily change the way politics work in Washington. If there was anything really damning in that New Yorker issue with the controversial drawing of Michelle and Barack on the cover, it was the article inside, an article that painted Obama as a fairly straightforward political operator who does little more than master the rules of the game so as to play his hand better than everyone else. An Obama presidency is change, especially symbolically, which is important in and of itself, but it probably will translate into far less than the transformational sea change that the Democrats are overconfidently selling.

Of course, deciding the next iteration of the Supreme Court is incredibly serious business. And the two candidates deploy radically different litmus tests for prospective judges. But does the end game of stocking the jury with “liberal” or “conservative” judges justify ramping up partisan spin-doctoring on all the issues of the day? Do we have to insult people’s intelligence with blatant double standards on how we read our candidates plusses and minuses vs. the other party’s ticket: the one with soft shoes, the other with steel-toed boots?

Haven't we had enough of the political double standards that allow us to read our own party's plights generously while treating the other party with ruthlessly self-interested stinginess?

We've turned American society into a collegiate forensics society where we all argue for the side of the debate we've been deputized to offer -- regardless of what truth and fairness might actually entail.

Does the political end justify the rhetorical means, even if the latter include too-easily institutionalized attempts to trick voters into giving your team the electoral ball even when you know you’ve done something -- maybe inadvertently -- that you would never allow your opponents to get away with? Is there any possible way to reverse our longstanding ability to trap our Constitution into the straightjacket of hyperpartisan politics? This is a fervent partisanship that our founding document isn’t necessarily equipped to mitigate -- or even address.

(Cross-posted with the Chonicle of Higher Education"s Brainstorm Blog)

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