Politics has always been a dirty business, but today’s political gauntlet feels like something new. And I’m not the only one who’s noticed. “The center has disappeared,” said policy adviser William Galston.
Campaigns now resemble a cross between a reality show, a beauty pageant and retribution for every slight and taunt from the popular kids in high school. Remember how people said they’d vote for George Bush because he’s the kind of guy they’d like to have a beer with? That was no fluke. That was the shape of things to come.
Physical attractiveness has been important since JFK, so 50 years minimum. In other words, not new. What’s new is a plethora of female candidates, along with short tight skirts and sexy pumps.
Then there’s the Q&A. You can’t just coast on the swimsuit competition, you know. Ya gotta answer questions about empowerment and world peace, and it had better be an answer that flatters the voters and quells their anxieties.
That too is not new. Chicken in every pot. Read my lips: no new taxes. Yes we can. In Iceland the Best Party has turned running for office into performance art. Among their campaign promises: “Free bus rides for students and cripples. We can offer more free things than any other party because we aren’t going to follow through with it. We could say whatever we want. For example, free flights for women or free cars for people who live in rural areas. It’s all the same.”
Ideally, a candidate is a blank slate, a Vanna White on which voters can project the image we need to see. The good girl. The rebel girl. The girl next door. The vamp. The mother you never had. The girl crush you never got over. The prodigal daughter, home at last — and she’s on the stump!
That slate has been the ready tool of kingmakers for decades, but the slate is blank no more. We live in an age of Too Much Information and now we’re privy to all kinds of unsavory details.
Since at heart we’re all snoops and gossips, I guess you could say we brought this on ourselves. Visionaries at the dawn of the Internet age predicted that whatever brought people together would be the technology of the future. Those looking to explain the explosion of Facebook and other social media need look no further.
Today’s campaigns are the populist outgrowth of what we used to see every night on TV — celebrities angling for our attention and approval. Ostensibly these stars were flirting with late-night hosts and studio audiences, but the seduction was really aimed at us. We were the consumers of books and movies, along with products the show hawked during commercial breaks.
A tiny fraction of viewers took up stalking, but the majority grew quietly judgmental. Cute? Showing her age? Sounds like an idiot? Looks like a hooker?
Today voters are scrutinizing political candidates as though what’s at stake is the title for Miss Mississippi, not the future of our country. Wrote one election observer: “Selection criteria is based on the same thing that brings people to used car sales — charisma, false promises and pandering.”
If we’re going to choose the people who make our laws the way we choose cars, let’s at least kick the tires, shall we?
Republican candidate for governor of California Meg Whitman has been called a whore. Delaware candidate for Senate Christine O’Donnell used to dabble in witchcraft and also declared, for the record, that she is not a slut. House candidate Krystal Ball of Virginia once frolicked at a costume party where a few salacious photos were snapped.
I feel like I’ve wandered into a turn-of-the-century carnival. As in 110 years ago. That century.
Oh, you can find the compromising photographs of Ms. Ball on the Web. But hey, if you’re into obscene pictures, take a look at this. Courtesy of the New York Times, the graphic comes from the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, and it measures job loss and recovery in recessions from the 1970s forward.
Warning: The chart is not for the faint of heart. Not only are job losses twice as bad this time around, the duration of this recession, which dates back to December 2007, is downright ugly. Last winter a window of hope opened when the U-shape began to climb. But a few months later, the employment line abruptly descended again.
Personally, I don’t care if a candidate is a whore or a witch or the Devil herself. If she’s got the brains and the backbone to get Americans out of this mess, she’s got my vote.
[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010]