The writer and satirist H. L. Mencken famously wrote, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed [and hence clamorous to be led to safety] by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
This is becoming depressingly apparent in the current US election campaign.
On the Left (particularly its extreme fringe) we have those who allege that the Bush administration has used the "politics of fear" (in this case, fear of Muslim extremist terrorism) to hoodwink the American people, lie to them, and lead our nation into unwise and catastrophically costly foreign military adventures. They maintain that it has subverted the Constitution and imposed at least the beginnings of a police state upon us (and, to be frank, I think there's enough "smoke", in terms of new and onerously restrictive laws and regulations, to demonstrate the existence of a real "fire" on this point). They also assert that in its preoccupation with terrorism and associated matters, the present Administration has "dropped the ball" on domestic politics, particularly economic matters, with the result now visible in an imminent recession. They reiterate over and over again that we can't afford "another four years of Bush", and try to paint the Republican side as inextricably intertwined with the present, failed policies.
On the Right, we find that commentators and candidates try to paint those on the Left as ignorant, blind and willfully stupid when it comes to national security. They insist that only their candidate(s) understand the real threat, and opine darkly that if the Democrats take the White House next year, the security of the nation will be irreparably damaged. They try to insist that present economic problems are the fruit of previous Democratic administrations and their misguided policies (partly true, to be sure, but ignoring the fact that subsequent Republican administrations did nothing to address the problems until they were blindsided by them). They warn bleakly that we'll be transformed into a Socialist economy (and, by implication, a Marxist nation) if the Democrats win the White House and retain control of Congress and the Senate.
Both sides are guilty of several besetting sins, which irritate me greatly and cause me to have real questions as to the future viability of our political system.
First, both sides place no emphasis whatsoever on thinking through the real issues that confront us: instead, the focus is on how we do, or may, or should, feel about them. This ignores the fact that feelings may have no correlation whatsoever with reality. Reality is measured in facts - and facts seem to be in short supply in this election campaign. Only children live according to their feelings. Adults (should) live according to the facts of the situation.
Second, both sides pander to and emphasize the group, rather than the individual. This ignores the reality that a "group" is an amorphous, soul-less blob on the landscape. The politics of the crowd are well-known. As far back as the days of the Roman Empire, Juvenal observed the corrupting influence of catering to the group:
... Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.
Whenever you see a political party (or politician) promising that if you vote for them (or him, or her), you'll get all sorts of "benefits" handed out "free", remember Juvenal's words. If you vote for them (or him, or her), you're voting for bread and circuses. As for such benefits being "free", remember the great Robert A. Heinlein's immortal acronym, T.A.N.S.T.A.A.F.L. (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). If something is provided, someone has to pay for it - and in terms of government, that means the taxpayer. You and I.
Third, neither side seems willing to acknowledge that both sides have elements of truth in many of their assertions. There's no willingness to compromise, to come together and seek the good of the whole - it's "my way or the highway". This fracturing of our political landscape has become perhaps the dominant feature of this campaign, having grown stronger over the past fifteen to twenty years. I don't know how to fix it: but we have to find a solution. "Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand" (Matthew 12:25, RSV). Right now, the USA is "divided against itself". That bodes very ill indeed for our future, unless we can find a way to come together - and neither campaign seems to be placing any emphasis on that reality. It's no good insisting that we must come together on the terms of one side or the other. We have to find common ground, where all can agree on at least certain fundamentals. If that common ground doesn't exist, the USA as we know it is doomed. That's a certainty.
Fourth, the Democratic campaign in particular - but also the Republican campaign to a certain extent - are long on "save-the-Earth" or "save-the-nation" or "save-the-American-dream" type rhetoric, but short on practical solutions. They're trying to get us to vote for them on the basis of "pie-in-the-sky", hoping that vague promises and featureless rosy visions will hoodwink us into ignoring the fact that political rhetoric never yet solved a problem. H. L. Mencken again: "The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule." Politicians offering to "save" us, or "save" our nation, fall under this definition.
Finally, I find a depressing lack of candor and courage among politicians of all parties and shades of opinion. There are far too few who will stand up to be counted. When was the last time you heard a politician say, "This is what I believe about [an issue]; I know it's not a popular opinion, but I nevertheless hold it, having examined all the facts at my disposal; and I'm going to act according to that opinion, whether or not the general public agrees with me. If you don't like my opinion, vote me out of office." It would be very refreshing to hear such honesty . . . but I suspect we'll wait an awful long time to hear most politicians say anything of the kind. There are a few (Ron Paul springs to mind), but not enough of them. Most are creatures of opinion polls, adapting their positions and policies to whatever the potential voters want. "If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner" (yes, Mencken again!).
Well, having grown thoroughly depressed at our political landscape, perhaps I should close with more of the political sayings of the sage, H. L. Mencken. He did have a way with words, that man . . .
A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.
A politician is an animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground.
Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.
Democracy is also a form of worship. It is the worship of Jackals by Jackasses.
Democracy is only a dream: it should be put in the same category as Arcadia, Santa Claus, and Heaven.
Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.
Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
Each party steals so many articles of faith from the other, and the candidates spend so much time making each other's speeches, that by the time election day is past there is nothing much to do save turn the sitting rascals out and let a new gang in.
Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.
Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.
Giving every man a vote has no more made men wise and free than Christianity has made them good.
I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time.
It is inaccurate to say that I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.
The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out . . . without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, intolerable.