Can Our Politics Stop Being Stupid?

Illustration for article titled Can Our Politics Stop Being Stupid?

Every campaign season brings its own share of frustrations. This one is no different. So now I get to vent. The polls are closed. The outcomes are known (mostly). And the spinmeisters have done what they do. Yet I feel entitled to one final campaign postmortem. In three big ways, I found this campaign season more aggravating than usual. I'm disappointed in liberals. I am flabbergasted by conservatives. And above all else, I'm really disappointed by and angry at the press.


Let's start there. Our friends in the Fourth Estate did more to let me down this election cycle than ever before. This is mostly a matter of judgment and standards. A friend from California visited Massachusetts just days before the election and asked me if it was really true that the Republican tide was so strong that Barney Frank might lose his congressional seat. "Are you kidding?" I said, somewhat incredulously.

"No," she replied. "A news report said he was in real trouble." Meanwhile, Frank won re-election with a comfortable 54 percent, versus 43 percent for his closest challenger.

I asked the same friend if Californians were really ready to elect two conservative women to statewide office — namely, Meg Whitman, who was running against Jerry Brown for governor, and Carly Fiorina, who was running against Barbara Boxer for U.S. Senate. She chuckled and said, "Not likely."

I replied, "Right! But the national press coverage made it seem that this incredibly well-financed Republican juggernaut was rolling through the nation, the two high-profile women candidates in California as leading exhibits."

At the final count, the putatively "liberal" Boxer beat former Hewlett-Packard CEO Fiorina 51.9 percent to 42.6 percent, even though Fiorina put approximately $6 million of her own money into the campaign. Former eBay CEO Whitman went down to even more crushing defeat. Though spending more than $140 million of her own vast fortune, she was defeated with just 41.3 percent of the vote, versus Jerry Brown's 53.5 percent.

Yet if you had followed the headlines and the dominant press narratives, you would have thought the conservative tsunami was ready to wash over California (defeats for Brown and Boxer) and Massachusetts (defeat for Frank). Wrong. Because the press got it so completely wrong, I wish for them, next time around, a whole new sense of self-respect, professional standards and political savvy. From my vantage point, too many journalists — including more than a few at respected national outlets — seem to have swallowed, completely and obligingly, official Republican talking points served up as if they constituted actual news or good journalism.


The outright contempt for reason, thinking, eloquence, tolerance and intelligence exhibited by some forces on the far right, including much of the Tea Party movement, is my second biggest frustration of campaign season 2010. Since when is ignorance a virtue? When does not understanding U.S. history or the Constitution qualify you for high elective office? How is the cause of democracy advanced by speculating about shooting one's opponent? These questions all had more of a realpolitik edge to them this year as various Republican candidates seemed to embrace the lowest, most mean-spirited political ethos seen in generations.

Fortunately, with all of the votes now finally counted, Coloradans will not have to put up with the eloquence of a Sen. Ken Buck, who assured voters that his boots were, in fact, covered in "real Colorado bulls—-." The residents of Delaware are arguably even more fortunate. With a 56 percent to 40 percent victory for Christopher Coons, we are all fortunate that there will be no Sen. Christine O'Donnell giving speeches about the lustful scourge of masturbation and the un-American idea of separating church and state. And we can all thank the good voters of Nevada who rejected Sharron Angle's suggestion to exercise their Second Amendment right to "shoot" her opponent and instead re-elected Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.


So for all the vitriol, misinformation, intolerance, ignorance and just sheer stupidity unleashed by conservative candidates this election season, I wish for the far right a sense of basic decency and at least glancing familiarity with U.S. history and the Constitution. Angry, know-nothing candidates and campaigns do sometimes prevail.  But we are all fortunate, indeed, that such moments tend not to last.

My last complaint is against liberals and progressives, most of those who at least sometimes think of themselves as solidly to the left of the Obama administration (at least on some issues). You know who you are. You are the folks behind the headlines suggesting that black and Latino voter turnout would be low because Obama had let down minority communities. You are the folks behind the claims that the financial-recovery act didn't do enough for middle Americans. You're the ones tirelessly asserting that Obama is "no FDR." You're the ones busily claiming that Obama is a divisive presence in American politics. Yes, you, you and even you. For all of you, much like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, I wish you all a brain.


The political challenge of this era seems obvious to me, but not to too many liberals. Instead, many of "us" were and are part of the relentless public criticism of Obama. This happened even though we are in a context in which, on Inauguration Day, Rush Limbaugh declared that he wanted Obama to fail; in which Republicans in Congress adopted the most unflaggingly recalcitrant — "Just say no!" — posture seen since pre-Civil War days; in which Fox News has, more unabashedly than ever before, declared its right-wing ideological commitments; and in which Republicans are now the majority in the House and in which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that his top priority is to make Obama a "one-term president."

As University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson once put it to me, "Victories for the right usually do nothing to organize the left." I want to applaud you for your political erudition, my progressive friends. By adding to the deafening roar of negativity coming from the right, you have just made it much harder to achieve any of the policy goals that most of us who like to be thought of as liberals would like to achieve. Bravo. 


By the time the 2012 contest is really under way, I hope the press does real investigative journalism and shows some actual politically grounded judgment in its reporting. I hope conservatives move back toward some measure of civility and thoughtfulness in the candidates and ideas they put forward. And I hope liberals figure out the real contours of the political context that Obama, the president who campaigned for Hope and Change, actually faces and behave accordingly. 

They say be careful what you wish for. With this ugly midterm election season now behind us, I'm desperately ready for all of these wishes to come true.


Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.