Thursday, April 24, 2008

I'll stay over here with the "elitist intellectuals", thanks.

So this whole ugly nonsense in Pennsylvania is over. In the process we got to watch Hillary Clinton
"'...[throw] the "kitchen sink' at Obama, as her campaign aides described it. Her campaign had been an assault on Obama's character flaws, real and imagined, rather than on matters of substance. Clinton also suffered a bizarre self-inflicted wound, having reimagined her peaceful landing at a Bosnian airstrip in 1996 as a battlefield scene complete with sniper fire. After six weeks of this, according to one poll, 60% of the American people considered her 'untrustworthy' a Nixonian indictment." (TIME Editorial - "The Incredibly Shrinking Democrats")
That sounds pretty bad, yes? And yet somehow, she won. Because somehow, this was not as bad to what happened with Obama. What happened with Obama? Well, this...


"...the American people learned that he was a member of a church whose pastor gave angry, anti-American sermons, that he was "friendly" with an American terrorist who had bombed buildings during the Vietnam era, and that he seemed to look on the ceremonies of working-class life — bowling, hunting, churchgoing and the fervent consumption of greasy food — as his anthropologist mother might have, with a mixture of cool detachment and utter bemusement."

And this is somehow worse than lying and mudslinging. Never mind that he's distanced himself from Reverand Wright since then, never mind that Reverand Wright's comments were quoted selectively and taken wildly out of context to begin with. Never mind that the Vietnam era happened when Obama was in elementary school. Never mind that his comments (which he has apologized for) were actually rather insightful, if poorly-worded.

That last link that I've got there makes a reference to TheMiddleClass.org, a project which rates state representatives "on their performance on votes that pertain to the current and aspiring middle class." They gave McCain a 50% , Clinton a 67% , and Obama a 75%. And in spite of this, people are still convinced by things that the writer of the "TIME" editorial I've been quoting describes as "scurrilous trash". To use another quote:
"...there is an immutable pedestrian reality to American politics: you have to get the social body language right if you want voters to consider the nobler reaches of your message. In his 1991 book, The Reasoning Voter, political scientist Samuel Popkin argued that most people make their choice on the basis of 'low-information signaling' — that is, stupid things like whether you know how to roll a bowling ball or wear an American-flag pin. In the era of Republican dominance, the low-information signals were really low — how Michael Dukakis looked in a tanker's helmet, whether John Kerry's favorite sports were too precious (like wind-surfing), whether Al Gore's debate sighs over his opponent's simple obfuscations were patronizing."
Low indeed. This is precisely the kind of thing that Obama's been attempting to avoid - incidentally, this is one of the reasons I like him. Hilary Clinton, on the other hand, has been feeding people's desire for "low information" to the point of nausea.
"...downing shots of Crown Royal and promising lower gas prices, attacking her opponent over trivia and threatening to 'obliterate' Iran. It was enough to earn the ire of the New York Times editorial page, which harrumphed, 'By staying on the attack and not engaging Mr. Obama on the substance of issues ... she undercuts the rationale for her candidacy that led this page and others to support her: that she is more qualified, right now, to be President.'"
And the gentleman who wrote that editorial does not seem to be any different from "most people"; immediately following the above quote is this:
"Well, tsk-tsk and ahem! But part of the problem with editorial writers — and, truth to tell, columnists like me — is a narrow definition of the qualifications necessary to be President. It helps to be a warrior, for one thing. It helps to be able to take a punch and deliver one — even, sometimes, a sucker punch. A certain familiarity with life as it is lived by normal Americans is useful; a distance from the √©lite precincts of academia, where unrepentant terrorists can sip wine in good company, is essential."
Aha, I see. So I guess that drinking shots of liquor while making childish personal attacks and idiotic comments about blowing up foreign countries is the way to show you're in touch with normal people these days? If I were among the blue-collar folks in Pennsylvania, I might have been more offended by this than by anything that Obama said. But instead of being appalled at what her actions implied (does she think they're all hard-drinking warmongers or something?) they ate up every bit of low-information signaling that was fed to them, and Hillary Clinton won the state because of it. It seems to me that this particular group of voters has decided they'd like a candidate who would make a nice drinking buddy, rather than someone who actually knows anything. And now I'm going to extrapolate a little: could it be that this is how we ended up electing George Bush — twice?

(Don't misunderstand me, here; if Clinton wins the nomination, I am not going to vote for John McCain. I'm not just wary of him, I am actually afraid of what might happen if he gets elected... but that's another topic for another post.)

I know that all of these things — the childish personal attacks, the negative campaigning, the "low-information signals" — are part of modern American politics. I am aware of this, and I am disturbed by it. I am disturbed that this seems to be all that people pay attention to, that people would rather base their opinions on a five-second sound clip than a candidate's voting record, that the news media treats a presidential election as nothing more than fodder for scandals. The sorry excuse for a debate that ABC pulled off is only one example of this. It's bad enough that politicians resort to digging up mud to sling at each other, and it becomes even worse when the people who are supposed to be providing us with information encourage this.

Most of all, I am disturbed that a lot of people don't see anything wrong with this. We're simply accepting these things of a fact of life, rather than demanding actual information instead of exaggerations. We're accepting sound-bites instead of demanding some context. And this election is much too important for people to be making decisions based on trivialities: George Bush is leaving us with a giant mess, and his successor is not going to be able to get rid of it with mere lip service to the middle class.