The atmosphere leading up to the presidential election on Tuesday is, without a doubt, poisonous. Politics can certainly be dirty, but the breadth and depth of the extremism surrounding this election is disheartening and distasteful. Not only the politicians and their staffers, but journalists, pundits, and many “average” Americans frame this election in terms of good v. evil, right v. wrong, faithful v. godless, and other similar associations that glorify one candidate and demonize his opponent.
A quick scan of today’s election coverage shows the now-familiar charges of hypocrisy, denigration of the troops, lying to America, disrespecting our allies, etc., from one or both sides. Last week, President Bush belatedly responded to Sen. Kerry’s charge that Iraq was “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time” by claiming that Kerry is “the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time.”
Many politicians and media commentators resort to sensationalism to get their message across. After all, the first group relies on it for the attention that they hope will lead to favorable votes, and the second group relies on it for the attention they hope will lead to book deals and TV appearances. Reagan had it right when he said, “Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.”
The most worrisome aspect of the present political atmosphere in this country is how such sensationalism translates into the minds and discourse of Americans across the country. Oftentimes politicians and the media seem somewhat removed from our daily lives, and it is difficult to objectively link their rhetoric with the quality or tone of news coverage. But the manner in which the media frame significant events, comment upon them, and decide whether or not to even report them, affects American political culture, for better or for worse.
Perhaps this election, which is increasingly being called “the most important of our lifetime,” really is just that. Many of the issues?the war in Iraq, unemployment rates, health care coverage, public education, and so on?are so important to individuals and families that they automatically elicit a sense that one candidate or the other will save or condemn them to a pitiable fate. In other words, vital issues can elicit visceral reactions.
But the media is so intimately tied to shaping Americans’ knowledge of and views on the news that the industry cannot be disengaged from political culture. Certain media outlets have gravely abused the respect given to their profession, and indulged in agenda-fueled, counterproductive delivery of the news. Many others have drawn attention to such abuses, and have learned from such flawed journalistic, management, and editorial techniques and worked to ensure that they do not occur again. But overall, the media’s influence on the political culture of this country has been astoundingly degenerative.
Admittedly, I am a young American, with a developing (aka: still immature) sense of political awareness. This will be the first presidential election in which I vote, and certainly the first one in which I’ve been well aware of the candidates’ records, perspectives, and the issues at stake. And, of course, I am not under the illusion that this or any other American presidential election should be pleasant or necessarily even polite. But I am struck by the way in which the venom has dripped down into the discourse and sentiment of many Americans, to the point of degenerating healthy political discourse. When friends and family cannot discuss the election for fear of a being painted as evil, corrupt, unpatriotic, or just plain stupid, something is deeply wrong. When neighbors have to literally electrify the campaign signs they post in their front yards to keep them from being stolen or destroyed, or supporters of one candidate need police protection in order to avoid being detained by the other candidate’s supporters, the same goes.
I anticipate Tuesday with gloom. Regardless of which candidate prevails, I see little reason to celebrate the political culture of the United States today.