I watched what we like to call a “presidential debate” Tuesday night, and I think I understand. I see how easily a strong belief in one political philosophy slides into an us-against-them mentality. I feel the allure of partisanship that goads people into sneering at any others who follow a different set of beliefs. For perhaps too many of us, that’s what we do and that’s what we want to see our chosen candidate do as well. The current president and the former governor did a lot of that tonight, so both sides will probably come away pleased with the evening’s performance.
Some genuinely undecided voters across the land may have reached a decision tonight, but if so, those decisions will have been based on performance in a political theater, because neither candidate said anything new or different from their previous positions. Political debates are all about likeability; a good debater inspires the faithful and wins the trust of the doubtful by following an old axiom: It’s not what you say, but how you say it, that matters.
A presidential debate adds the need to appear presidential, but it’s still just your basic two-person popularity contest. That pretty much destroys any hope of an actual, honest debate of ideas and positions. But it’s very interesting television to watch, and sometimes quite revealing.
The most informative moment of the night was created by an almost involuntary reaction from the audience. Mitt Romney had just finished arguing with President Obama about when Obama had first used the words “terrorist act” or “act of terror” when describing the assassination of three US citizens and US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya. Obama said that he had done so during a speech to the American public from the White House Rose Garden on the day after the attack. Romney strongly insisted that Obama did not do so until 14 days later.
The moderator, Candy Crowley, quietly corrected Romney’s falsehood – or misleading statement – or outright lie, no way to tell. Obama asked if she would say that again a little louder, which drew a small laugh from a few in the small crowd.
Crowley did repeat her comment, then moved the debate on to another topic. But her simple declaration drew a moment of quiet, almost universal applause from the audience, who were described as being undecided or independent voters.
Everyone in that audience responded in a positive and seemingly instinctive manner to the squelching of a dishonest statement by a politician. It was as if they all had long ago reached their limit of hearing that kind of trash talk, and they were so pleased to see it get shut down that they forgot to keep quiet as promised.
That’s the most meaningful political statement I’ve seen this year. If we’re lucky, it signals a shift in the attitude of the American public away from the politics of ugly partisanship. And if that’s true, then Romney and the Republican machine are in trouble.
Partisan political zealots will always be with us, and they actually provide a valuable service. Extremism can serve as an indicator of where limits and boundaries are needed in order to have a civilized society. And there have been many times in history when an extreme position turned out to be the correct one.
But this election has featured more partisan word-spinning and blatant lying than any other in my lifetime – it’s probably the worst we’ve seen in America since the 1860s. That ugliness has kept about one-third of eligible voters away from politics during the past five decades, and it’s part of the reason why we don’t really have a democracy in America today..
If you were to take ten people to represent the state of our current political performance as a country, then three of those people would be Republicans, three would be Democrats, and three would be non-voters. The last person would represent everyone who votes for any other candidate.
That’s the swing vote; the 10 percent of eligible voters who want something completely different from their government than the two major parties are willing to offer. I’m in that 10 percent, and it’s always an interesting place to be during a close national election.
There is a difference between the Dems and Reps, and that difference sometimes matters. The Bush administration invaded Iraq, but a Gore administration probably would not have. That’s a huge difference, one that will leave a significant mark in history.
In this election, Reps and Dems offer a genuine difference about the role of government in shaping society. All they need is a little more than one-third of all eligible voters to choose their candidate. The non-voters are ignored; despite being one-third of all adult citizens, they don’t matter when they aren’t in the game. Dems and Reps have their bases secured; independents and undecideds will be the final factor in picking a winner.
Thanks to our winner-take-all Electoral College system, whichever campaign is more effective in convincing the crucial voters in specific states will win in November. Either way, don’t expect much improvement in the economy during the next four years. The main areas of contention between Obama and Romney are actually areas in which a president has little influence.
The most important element of the last three debates are the candidates who didn’t get invited to the show. Here’s a salute to Gary Johnson, Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson, candidates of small parties who are trying to restore a genuine democracy in this country by running truly independent campaigns. They can’t win, and they know it, but their efforts deserve support. If members of the non-voter party that are always calling for change ever decide to actually get involved in making some changes, those independent campaigns will be ready to embrace them.
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