Enough of the politics of degradation

2010-09-26T02:00:00Z Enough of the politics of degradationBy CLAY JENKINSON Bismarck Tribune
September 26, 2010 2:00 am  • 

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.)

Copyright 2015 Bismarck Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(19) Comments

  1. AR-15
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    AR-15 - October 03, 2010 8:36 pm
    Nice try Clay, I've heard you on the radio many times and you're nothing but another mouthpiece for the big government liberals in this country. I'd respect you a lot more if you'd stop this "middle of the road" charade and just admit you're a hard core lefty.
  2. emartin317
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    emartin317 - September 28, 2010 3:13 pm
    Interventioner said: "Without that sounding board which is society and mixed social groups, the notions of the psychotic morons are preserved... and while these cowards are scared to say the things they say here to anyone but their ilk, they instead reinforce their psychotic stupidity when they talk amongst themselves. Normal/sane people need to reinvent small talk, and of course laugh at the psychotic and stupid notions, relegating the illegitimate and juvenile antics to their rightful seat (next to insolent children). "

    I think that you are absolutely right. By only talking to those who share your opinions and viewpoints, by only talking to those who have similar cultural backgrounds and incomes, it's very difficult to understand others' points of view. We need to stop seeing politics as a win/lose situation and instead focus on listening to each other, understanding why people want the things they do for this country, and moving towards a compromise that will actually accomplish something, be it lowering the unemployment rate, providing quality education for all children regardless of where they live, or safeguarding our civil liberties. No more flat-out disagreeing with a policy just because the other side proposed it, no more solutions that are simply the opposite of what the other side would do. A real dialogue is needed, not name-calling or finger-pointing.
  3. Halatbis
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    Halatbis - September 28, 2010 1:00 pm
    To HPDrifter: did you look up the word "cabal" in the dictionary?
    Yes, there is a connotation to the word cabal and it is very fitting for what was going on in Congress over the past 18 months.
    My vocabulary includes a lot of words and descriptions I could have used ( I have a Navy background) to describe the O/R/P leadership---and I use the term leadership rather than what was really going on.
  4. JDavis
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    JDavis - September 28, 2010 12:54 pm
    Ditto to the need for rational discourse all around, and to the need for the seemingly lost arts of listening and civility.
  5. highplainsdrifter
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    highplainsdrifter - September 28, 2010 7:19 am
    As I read the comments about the "politics of degradation" I am disappointed in how many practice it in their responses.
    From interventioners " psychotic moron's" to Halatbis " Obama/Reid/Pelosi cabal".
    Perhaps the answer is that some posters actually believe the extreme views they are promoting. They simply do not recognize that they are engaging in "Politics of degradation" since they believe what they are saying is the absolute truth. This is sad, members of both sides of the Aisle have lost the ability for rational discourse at this juncture. Hopefully a middle ground of rationality and bipartisanship can be found.
    Have a nice day folks
  6. Interventioner
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    Interventioner - September 27, 2010 10:16 pm
    The problem is that talking about politics is taboo. That's understandable in the work place, but in social settings with mixed company it's a sin NOT to talk about it.

    If anything, we should be obligated to talk about... and indeed... the rest of the modern world does. Go to another country, and instead of weather or sports, politics is your typical and polite small talk.

    Without that sounding board which is society and mixed social groups, the notions of the psychotic morons are preserved... and while these cowards are scared to say the things they say here to anyone but their ilk, they instead reinforce their psychotic stupidity when they talk amongst themselves.

    Normal/sane people need to reinvent small talk, and of course laugh at the psychotic and stupid notions, relegating the illegitimate and juvenile antics to their rightful seat (next to insolent children).
  7. Halatbis
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    Halatbis - September 27, 2010 1:14 pm
    The theme: good and decent people of both parties; each will do a good job; etc.

    This is sophistry.
    On the national scene especially---the party and person are joined at the hip, and it is the political beliefs and intentions of the party that matter. The Obama/Reid/Pelosi cabal have "Progressivism" as their agenda. As we have seen the members of their party (Pomeroy, Dorgan, Conrad) are in near lockstep with the leadership.

    To change the direction of the Party in power we must vote out their rank and file--thereby voting out their members and the Party. Their liberal and progressive agenda goes out with them.

    To say Pomeroy is a good and decent man may be true; however, he is not "good" as a Representative of the country or North Dakota---he does not represent our values and political beliefs.
  8. QuestionAuthority
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    QuestionAuthority - September 27, 2010 11:38 am
    Coin said:

    "I will not, nor cannot vote for any GOP-TP candidate.

    That makes me a little sad; as I am sure there are many who are good, decent people who are fully capable of doing a good job in the elected office they aspire too.

    Yet, I cannot vote for a party that places its own personal interests above the welling-being of North Dakota or the United States."

    Just for fun, let me change this a little:

    "I will not, nor cannot vote for any DNC-Socialist-Acorn-Code Pink candidate. That makes me a little sad; as I am sure there are many who are good, decent people who are fully capable of doing a good job in the elected office they aspire to. Yet, I cannot vote for a party that places its own personal interests or power above the welling-being of North Dakota or the United States, such as unconstitutionally expanding the role of government into personal lives, expanding power at the expense of the rule of law, ignoring the wishes and the consent of the governed in favor of political cronies, and burdening each and every child with unsustainable debt in the name of someone else's "good idea". "

    Does it still sound as "civil" and "tolerant" to you as your post did to others?

    You might want to watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YXqf_6ug54 for an idea of how bad things have gotten in the last couple of years. While the current crew in Washington thinks it's okay to regulate our lightbulbs and have celebrity hearings with baseball players and cheapen the debate by calling comedians to testify, they have failed to pass a budget, failed to address the extension of the tax cuts (so that they can spend more time campaigning!), and rammed through laws on unipartisan votes on bills they've never read, an absolute first in history.

    My idea of REAL hope and change is to see this kind of shenanigans end, and that means getting rid of Pomeroy in November.

  9. NDOkie
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    NDOkie - September 27, 2010 8:45 am
    Thank you for a well-written, meaningful editorial. It seems to me that when such an article is presented to us, it offers the opportunity to simply sit with it and reflect on how it might be indicting not only those at whom we like to point the finger and call "those people." How is it indicting us, individually? This is especially true when one feels compelled to lash out, or begin again to point fingers at "those people." In what way is this editorial calling each of us--no only the professional politicians--to reform our ways?
  10. QuestionAuthority
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    QuestionAuthority - September 27, 2010 8:18 am
    I have to agree with many of the posters; Mr. Jenkinson is a talented writer who expresses himself well. It’s his filter that is faulty here.

    Why, for example, would he bring up the G.H.W. Bush Willie Horton ads showing that Dukakis paroled a man who went out to commit a more horrific crime as “race-baiting”, and leave off mention of those disgraceful Gore NAACP ads against George W. Bush in 2000 showing James Byrd’s daughter bemoaning that because only two of her father’s killers were given the death penalty (while Bush was governor), it was like her father was being killed all over again? Why would he leave off mention of LBJ’s notorious and false “daisy” ad in the 1964 campaign? Could it be that Mr. Jenkinson does not see those heinous ads as degrading to civil discourse as the ones he cited?

    There is likewise no moral equivalence to the ads of Berg and Pomeroy; Pomeroy’s ads are worse: claiming that his opponent, a part-time state legislator and full-time businessman is a “career politician”, or using scare tactics by claiming that state legislator Berg is out to dismantle federal Social Security through privatization, or that he had a say about the federal banking bills, are statements we voters call “lies”. As in, they are simply not true. As in, Pomeroy is ducking talking about the issues that matter when deciding for whom to vote: his votes on Obamacare, how he providentially got his chairmanship, and has avoided talking about all his PAC money. Remember when we were told that Obamacare would not fund abortions? That too, is something we call a “lie”. How about buying Viagra for convicted sex offenders? “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” Care to guess who said that quote?

    Mr. Jenkinson is a Jefferson scholar. Jefferson himself would be appalled at the antics of the current Congress and administration, and applaud the efforts to unseat those who are no longer responsive to the people they are supposed to represent. One of my favorite quotes from him is “When the government fears the people there is liberty; when the people fear the government there is tyranny.” Or this one: “The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first.” We have a Congress and Administration complicit in taking control of people’s personal health care decisions away from them, forcing us to bail-out favored unions, taking control of private industries such as automakers and bankers, and you wonder why people are so disgusted (or "cynical")? “What country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time that this people preserve the spirit of resistance?”

    After all, Jefferson is the one who said “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” Pointing out the large and small tyrannies of those who made decisions against the interests and without the consent of the governed should be considered free discourse in the fight against tyranny.

  11. Halatbis
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    Halatbis - September 26, 2010 10:39 pm
    Let's talk about "control" for a few minutes. Think back to the weeks prior to the passage of The Health Care Reform Act---Obama-care, as some call it.
    There was the Cornhusker kickback---it looked like some kind of bribe---"control"?

    The Louisiana Purchase; a few hundred million dollars for the state of Louisiana for the vote of their senate delegation. Control??? You tell me.

    The exemption of certain population from a tax--which makes their Senator look good and get re-elected??? Florida with a high retired population.

    Change the focus: the Federal gov. bails out GM---and the union pension plan with lots of voters and lots of boots on the ground---they got bought off to control their votes.

    This is our government at work using the peoples' money to pass legislation that advances the interest of special groups. Each group that gets a "benefit" becomes captive voters for the government, and they are paying less for the largess they receive. Someone else pays.
    Progressive strategy is to capture self interested groups in sufficient quantity to elect them in perpetuity.

    An interesting book to tell you how it is done, "The Struggle To Limit Government" by John Samples: look him up on Wiki.

    Have a nice read!
  12. highplainsdrifter
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    highplainsdrifter - September 26, 2010 8:06 pm
    sounds like you misunderstood my post. The point I was making was that your characterization of the " progressive ideal' as being to " control" the people is itself a continuation of the "politics of degradation" that Clay speaks about. I doubt there is any serious political group out there in the US whose goal, written or unwritten, is to "control" the people. However, you may indeed choose to believe that this is the " progressive ideal". In my view people can believe whatever they wish to, no matter how wrong they are.
    have a nice day.
  13. Halatbis
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    Halatbis - September 26, 2010 7:06 pm
    Why is it when a Conservative point of view is tendered the Left or Progressive or Democrat seems to take it as some personal vitriolic and mean spirited attack???

    High Plains reads my post and takes it as a "degradation" of Jenkinson's column. As I said, his column is well written and well said. His premise is that the pol's are in attack mode and it does not serve the public debate. He is right---they are and it does not.

    However, since a great many read Clay, he has an audience that will weigh his thoughts and consider the argument. He seems not to see the ideological battle that is going on in our country, and in many other free nations. There is a dispute over the role of government and to its authority to regulate our lives.

    It is clear that some people see the passage of Obama-care as a long awaited right that has been denied them up to now. They celebrate the assumption of their personal obligations by government thinking that this comes to them free of cost. That is how this Obama care was sold to a significant part of our population.
    Now that it is "forever" in place we will be forever beholden to this same government for our health care; managed and administered by a massive collection of marginally? competent cloistered bureaucrats It should be very clear that government can and has and will continue to use social programs to manipulate the people.
    This was going on in Europe since the 1930's, and continues to this day. Read F. Heyak (sp?)Road to Serfdom.
    Tell me this is not happening in the U.S.

    BTW: thanks HPDrifter to allow me my opinion.
  14. Old Whig
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    Old Whig - September 26, 2010 5:35 pm

    This “cynical notion” came from the unprecedented efforts of our nations leaders to deconstruct the nation they governed. Our leaders began to govern like imperial governors trained in colonial administration.

    Creating, separating and legally boxing in groups and cultures, exploiting their differences and reminding each of old or unresolved conflicts, not preserving and building the nation, became the intellectual and governing fad of the last 50 years. The original legislative intent in 1964-1965 of “positive nondiscrimination” was replaced in the bureaucracy, law courts, universities and major corporations with “affirmative discrimination.” Our leaders in government began to “think we are morons,” or as Maya Angelou put it at President Clinton’s inauguration “wedded forever to fear, yoked eternally to brutishness.”

    I share your cri du cœur: “Give me a break. Give us a break.”

    Americans who “believe in the nobility of our system” are again earnestly asking for their due as citizens. It is time for the deconstructionist movement to fade away. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. warned that this “counterrevolution has seriously degraded the original theory of America.” It has straight jacketed our leaders into seeming shallow and incompetent - and buffoonish, if not venal. It is a good time to appropriate from Cromwell that “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately ... Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

  15. terrier
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    terrier - September 26, 2010 5:21 pm
    For a "Jefferson scholar" , the writer's naivete or lack of historical perspective on this issue is surprising. One has only to mention the Jefferson/Callender affair to notice an important omission . Mudslinging is nothing new in the political arena and , unfortunately, is quite effective with a certain element of the population.

    "Thomas Jefferson, impressed with Callender's attack on Hamilton, and eager to create a counterforce to the Federalist press,[10] sought to use Callendar's talents against John Adams. Subsequent to meeting him in Philadelphia, Jefferson financially supported Callender and provided feedback on early proofs of Callender's anti-Federalist pamphlet The Prospect Before Us.[11][12] Prior to the publication of the pamphlet, Callender was compelled to flee on foot from Philadelphia to Virginia, finding temporary refuge at the plantation of Senator Stevens Thomas Mason.

    In Virginia, he completed The Prospect Before Us, whose subject was the pervasiveness of political corruption, particularly among Federalists and the Adams administration. His populist style had his targets permanently on the defensive.[13] In June 1800, in retaliation for The Prospect, Callender was prosecuted under the Sedition Act by the Adams administration. His trial was presided over by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, who was later impeached, in part due to his handing of the Callender trial. Callender was fined $200 and received the longest jail term of the journalists who had been prosecuted under the Sedition Act. He was released on the last day of the Adams administration, in March 1801. After his release, Callender and the others who had been prosecuted were pardoned by the new president, Thomas Jefferson."

  16. highplainsdrifter
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    highplainsdrifter - September 26, 2010 3:57 pm
    Halatbis said: "This is a long way to a point: The politicians will not and cannot talk forthrightly about what they are doing; that is Obama/Reid/ Pelosi cannot say they want to pull the Government to the Progressive ideal---they say instead that this is for the benefit of the poor, underprivileged, common man, etc. In reality they are putting into place programs run by governemnt that "control" the people. "

    So clay writes a great article, you complement him yet then start right up on the politics of degradation once again. What nonsense that progressives simply want to " control" the people. As clay says.. " Give us a break". There is no hidden agenda by the progressives, as you call them, to nefariously control the people. Believe what you wish though. have a nice weekend!
    Great Article clay.
  17. Halatbis
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    Halatbis - September 26, 2010 1:43 pm
    Well thought out and written. The appeal to civility is admirable and we all wish it could be so. And we wish, too, that the American public, and especially voters, would devote a bit more time and attention to their government at all levels. However, they don't for a myriad of reasons.

    Not to get far into history, but---this nation, whose founders came forth with new ideas and an establishment of a constitution, has been contentious in politics since inception. We are really in a debate that has been on the table for centuries; that being "the power and role of government".

    History shows that America has gone through several cycles of political idealism that is centered about the power accorded to central government. These being Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and now the Obama/Pelosi/Reid consortium. Each of these entries into what is called progressivism was followed by a retrenchment and return to a more limited government.

    We are in such a cycle at this moment---the American public has sensed the over-reach of government and they are of a mind to pull it back---and they will pull it back.

    This is a long way to a point: The politicians will not and cannot talk forthrightly about what they are doing; that is Obama/Reid/ Pelosi cannot say they want to pull the Government to the Progressive ideal---they say instead that this is for the benefit of the poor, underprivileged, common man, etc. In reality they are putting into place programs run by governemnt that "control" the people.
    Is this misleading?
    The opposition Party will say that the country cannot spend money this way---our constitutional government is not legitimately allowed to do this.

    Do we think people will take the time to understand our governmental structure, economic structure, and political structure to come to a well-reasoned conclusion???
  18. The other side of the coin
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    The other side of the coin - September 26, 2010 9:01 am
    Clay, I am proud of you for making the effort but it is like thrusting your hand into a bucket of water, pulling it out and looking into the bucket to see what has changed; nothing.

    This is the worst I have seen it and sometimes I am reminded of pre-World War II Germany.

    I am a Senior Citizen and will be voting soon by absentee voter ballet.

    I will not, nor cannot vote for any GOP-TP candidate.

    That makes me a little sad; as I am sure there are many who are good, decent people who are fully capable of doing a good job in the elected office they aspire too.

    Yet, I cannot vote for a party that places its own personal interests above the welling-being of North Dakota or the United States.
  19. Celticman
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    Celticman - September 26, 2010 2:58 am
    Here! Here! I am particularly disappointed with Pomeroy's campaign. Shouldn't he be talking about his accomplishments? He's been there nine terms!
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