Is it possible to put the political genie back in the bottle?

By Ken Kruly and Paul Fisk

We began our interest in politics as high school and college students in the sixties. The first campaign work for both of us was for Congressman Max McCarthy in 1966. Politics was a lot different then.

There were no computers or internet. Numbers were crunched by hand, or by a huge comptometer, an oversized version of what morphed in the seventies into hand-held calculators. There were no exit polls, just cross-off sheets that reported who had voted already on Election Day. There were no 24/7 news channels to inform or to provide talking points for the political followers.

There were hundreds of party committeemen who did the grunt work of the party. Many of them had jobs secured through their connections and loyalty.

If you wanted to run for office, you got to know your political leaders. Some were quite strong and sometimes feared. They were called “bosses.”

The New York State Democratic political convention was held in Buffalo in 1966. It happened to be the last one in New York State where the party bosses from throughout the state selected the statewide candidates. After that primaries ruled, although the state committee continues to endorse candidates and qualify some for the statewide ballot. Endorsees, however, don’t always win primaries.

So here we are in 2016. The presidential cycle we are living through is bizarre. And no need to be politically correct here – the bizarreness is almost all on the Republican side of the aisle.

Anyone who has gotten through the fourth season of House of Cards realizes that reality has become even crazier than that series’ plot lines.

CNN has run another political series about six particular presidential elections, called Race to the White House. That series superficially focuses on some dirty tricks, or clever tactics perhaps, that were used in those campaigns. Offering jobs, printing fake convention hall admittance passes (both via the Lincoln campaign!), were used. Shocking! Or stupid campaign blunders, like Michael Dukakis riding in that tank or failing to express outrage at a debate question speculating about his wife getting attacked.

The recent spat between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz about their wives was particularly disturbing. Families used to be off limits. Potty talk was for third graders. Comments that are not only written down but electronically recorded are later routinely denied. Alan Bedenko noted Chris Collins’ defense of Trump’s most vile and personal attacks – he was “misquoted” or “taken out of context.” The context is pretty clear Chris.

There are many of us who are shaking our heads about the sorry state of politics. We would like to think that the more enlightened younger generations will be our salvation for this mess, but then we see some millennials – Democrats, Republicans, independents – spewing the same non-thinking, disrespectful hate that Trump has encouraged.

We have arrived at this point in time because:

  • The internet, cable news networks and daily talk radio do the thinking for lots of people. Talking points come neatly packaged.
  • Those same media outlets, particularly TV, make lots of money off of partisan talk, so they need to continue promoting this stuff.
  • Many people feel betrayed by elected leaders who have used their followers for their own purposes. Voters have been fed what they want to hear about social issues so that they would support politicians who then proceed to cut their own deals with giant organizations who provide the money to run the campaigns, ultimately hurting many less well-off supporters.
  • Citizens United has badly damaged the political process by feeding the shadier side of politicians, whether it is an attack on Hillary Clinton or dragging Trump’s wife into the campaign.

So where is this all leading?

The ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of representative democracy lies with its citizenry.  If we succumb to the bigotry, hate and fascist tendencies of some of the candidates who have garnered the support of a significant minority of voters we will have brought it upon ourselves.

The traditional liberal answer to much of our predicament is that we need better education. With so many doubting climate change, with so many denying evolution, with so much ignorance of basic economic facts and basic civics, with such disrespect for facts themselves and for science – representative democracy needs a better educated electorate to be successful.  And it needs a return to recognizing and promoting the value and necessity of citizen involvement.

We get what we deserve in our democracy – we have the power to effect change and are arguably to blame for tolerating what has happened to our politics.  While some real leadership by our elected officials and our free press, not just pandering, is a necessary part of any real solution, we need a citizenry that insists on, and is willing to heed, more truth telling by our institutions and leaders.  Getting the dark money out of politics would be a good start.

And while we have wisely required a separation of church and state in our system of governance, we would do well to remember some core values – like the ideal of treating others as we would wish to be treated, and the dignity and worth of the individual.  A little mutual respect and desire to “do unto others…” would go a long way toward making our political discourse more civil and productive.  Capitalism may be an effective economic engine, but it needs tempering with a respect for others and not simply a “greed is good” ethic.

We are hopeful that we will not stampede over the cliff in this election cycle.  But the success of ugly rhetoric and divisiveness to date should serve as a warning to all of us that we need to collectively remember and reassert our core values.  Our politics can’t be based on fear, bigotry and misinformation if we are to succeed.  The most hopeful note to date is the strong majority that is rejecting the candidates with the most hateful speech. We are learning this year what “staring into the abyss” looks like.  Let’s hope we learn enough to do something positive for the future.

5 thoughts on “Is it possible to put the political genie back in the bottle?

  1. I would respectfully suggest that education is inadequate if it isn’t in a context of institutional trust – because then it becomes information from a suspect authority, and any validity it may have does not bear weight in decision-making to those considering it. So education alone isn’t going to solve the problem; we need more transparency in government, in business, and in general to rebuild trust.

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  2. Not to be disrespectful I submit that we are already past the turning point to do much of anything about global warming. The turning point in our national politics may also have passed, the same one the German people passed in the 1930s, the Romans a hundred years before Christ and the Athenians even before that. As far as “House of Cards” is concerned, reality is always stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense.

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  3. I can’t take issue with anything my former colleagues Ken and Paul stated about the current state of affairs in American politics. I can attempt to add to the dialogue and, hopefully, stimulate other input.

    There is no doubt that the news media has contributed enormously to the riot we call the Republican presidential primary. The genuflection of most of the media to Donald Trump is absurd but is also a reflection of the demise of “news” media. We are now a celebrity based society. We have an entire family known for nothing more than being known; whose singular contribution to America was the self-promotion of self-released sex tape. Get on television, on Twitter, on Facebook and you can by-pass the old strictures set by a media focused on the news and current events. When the networks were bought by entertainment giants, the focus shifted dramatically away from news coverage. Budgets were cut. Entire news bureaus abroad were eliminated. Media was structured to focus on select audiences with predictable news. It matters little that those who watch Fox News have been found to be sadly misinformed about the issues facing this country. The Fox watchers are fed a steady stream of distortion, misinformation, and outright lies that play to their fears and their beliefs. Check your email. On any given day you will receive the latest version of Obama is coming for your guns or Obama is in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood, or famously, Obama’s military exercises in Texas were the first step in taking over that state. On the other side, we have Rachel Maddow and friends who appeal to the opposite thinkers. I can’t say that I’ve ever been anything but informed by watching her show but her appeal is purposefully directed at people like me.

    But the bottom line is that we become over-communicated and under-informed.

    That’s why we have a campaign on the Republican side that has focused alternately on beautiful walls, punching people in the face, the relative attractiveness of wives, and predicting violence if a certain candidate doesn’t win at the convention.

    That’s why we have no discussion about climate change, alternative energy, gun violence, the heroin epidemic, the disparity of wealth or real immigration reform. We, as a people, have not demanded such discussions and the candidates are free to focus on things they profess to know about while in reality they remain ignorant; to wit, carpet bombing, torture, the end of international participation and the like.

    That’s also why Congress is free to “act” (there have never in the history of the republic been a more do-nothing congress) as though we don’t have a president. When the Senate Majority Leader states that his job is to obstruct the wishes of the president, and those who elected him, impeachment should have been in order. Instead, that becomes a mantra. That anything has gotten done in this country is a real testament to the ability of the president to circumvent congressional road blocks. Congress is free to ignore infrastructure rebuilding in the name of austerity but can spend $41 million and counting on a politically-motivated witch hunt on the issue of Benghazi and also spend $2 million a whack each time it votes to eliminate Obama-care.

    This all happened gradually, while we were busy watching “reality” television and getting hooked on a celebrity culture. Can we ever reverse it? It depends of how many “we’s” we have out there.

    To paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel: “Where have you gone, Walter Cronkite?”

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