The politics of name calling is really getting me down. Every time I turn on my television, I hear (from the Berg campaign) that Earl Pomeroy is Nancy Pelosi's lapdog, that he wasted gigantic sums of our money in the failed stimulus bill, and that his vote in favor of the national health care reform package proves that he is out of touch with the people of North Dakota. From the Pomeroy folks, I hear that Rick Berg wants to destroy the National Park system, that he would have privatized Social Security, that he wanted to sell our private banking information to the highest bidder.
On the national scale it is even worse. Much worse. To his enemies Senator Harry Reid of Nevada is "Dismal Harry," a mountebank, a third-rate political hack. Reid's supporters declare that his opponent Sharron Angle is a dimwit, a right wing stooge, and-horrors-a crypto Scientologist. Reid's partisans say Angle would destroy America as we know it. (In the world of political demagoguery, it is always America "as we know it.") Angle's partisans say Reid is, as we speak, destroying America. As we know it.
Give me a break. Give us a break.
No wonder the American people are disillusioned. When politicians use cynical tactics to win elections and degrade their opponents, we all lose. The republic loses. If you disgust the American people with willful distortion, over-simplification, innuendo, political sneering, and ad hominem attacks, the idea that democracy is a noble and really important enterprise takes another hit. As the 21st Century begins, American democracy is dying-death by a thousand cheapenings of the high-minded constitutional structure designed by Madison, Washington, and Jefferson. Our system only works if the people are engaged enough to make responsible choices about who should represent them in the public arena, how they want their hard-earned money spent, and what policies they want the state and nation to pursue. Once you turn an election into a sustained series of slurs, a "win at any cost" game, you devalue democracy and effectively disenfranchise the people. They turn away in disgust. They shrug their shoulders and say, "a pox on both your houses." In 2010 American politics feels more like professional wrestling than "the last best hope of earth," as Abraham Lincoln put it.
When confronted about their participation in the obscenity of our political discourse, our politicians adopt a look of pained sincerity and tell us they hate the negative ads, then explain that they are either only defending themselves and responding to the filth thrown up by the other guy, or that they are only trying to make sure the voters are fully aware of the political record and the dangerous positions of their opponent. They also look around furtively and then confide, "Like it or not, negative ads work. I have to win the election before I can do good things for the people of ...."
Do they think we are morons?
And then later, after the election, when they are addressing university classes and "We the People" or "People to People" conferences, our politicians wring their hands and lament the growing apathy of the American people. But we are apathetic because we infer (from the cheap shots and mumbo jumbo of our political discourse) that a system that we were trained in eighth grade to regard as enlightened and majestic now has the integrity of a carnival or a Turkish carpet showroom. Where did the American people get the cynical notion that it's all about special interests, influence peddling, power, money, and access? Answer: no month goes by without a news story about Congressional ethics violations, all-expense-paid trips to foreign golf courses, sweetheart deals, and the calls made to federal regulators on behalf of important constituents.
I believe that most members of Congress are good and decent people, who work hard and try to do the right thing, who weigh their decisions carefully, who believe in the nobility of our system, and want to be legislators with a capital L. I certainly believe that of North Dakota's three-member Congressional delegation. But if that is an accurate assessment, I want America's politicians to deport themselves like men and women who believe that integrity is more important than expediency.
We don't want or benefit from Harry and Louise health care ads, or the race-baiting of Lee Atwood's Willie Horton ads in the 1988 George H.W. Bush campaign. I want the North Dakota Congressional race of 2010 to be characterized by a thoughtful and respectful debate about how North Dakota should be represented in the U.S. House of Representatives. I want the two candidates to articulate their positions with clarity, good sense, and generosity of spirit towards their opponent. I want the candidates to rein in their media handlers. When Senator Dorgan was heckled at one of the health care forums in a rural community last year, he said, "Hey, we don't do that kind of thing here. We're North Dakotans." That should be the spirit of the Pomeroy-Berg campaign.
We need a series of actual public debates between the two candidates, and between Tracy Potter and John Hoeven. I believe the candidates would be more civil towards each other in a moderated public forum than they are when their media specialists huddle alone with them in a television studio.
Politicians have a moral responsibility to lift America, to remind us of the idealism of self-government. Every observer sees that American politics is getting more vicious, more petty, more nakedly partisan, more Machiavellian. The result is deadlock and national paralysis, at a time when the rest of the world is striding into the 21st Century-particularly China and India. It is possible that our politics will get even worse. They will only get better if we start to ratchet down the rancor and the name calling. It is in the interest of every politician to move towards a more mature and conciliatory conversation about who we are, where we are heading, and what we value.
Two things seem undeniable. First, the madness that has taken over the country should not be allowed cross the border into North Dakota. Second, I know Earl Pomeroy well and respect him, and I know Rick Berg (less well) and respect him, and I believe both men are much more decent than their campaigns.
(Clay Jenkinson is the Theodore Roosevelt Center scholar at Dickinson State University, as well as Distinguished Scholar of the Humanities at Bismarck State College. Clay can be reached at Jeffysage@aol.com or through his website, Jeffersonhour.org.)