Must politics be mud-wrestling?

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By Frank Wessling

Paying attention to politics this year may endanger your spiritual life.

2012 is a national election year and the evidence is already strong that we can expect a further nine-month abuse of truth. This applies especially to the presidential race, both pre-nomination for Republicans and on into the general campaign. Now that practically unlimited money can be poured into campaigns, there will be no escaping the onslaught of TV, radio and print appeals by and for candidates.

Far too much of it will be negative; tearing down the opposing candidate; suggesting misbehavior, dishonesty, disloyalty, and unspoken but darkly fearful alien “other” qualities when flat-out untruths are not used. The positive elements a candidate puts forward about himself will themselves be exaggerated and otherwise stretch and distort the truth.

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We’ve already seen how useful the politics of destruction is, and why even the most high-minded of candidates gets drawn into it. Negative campaigning works. Newt Gingrich proved the point again in the South Carolina Republican primary. His 12-point margin of victory over Mitt Romney was a rapid reversal of momentum in their race fueled by harsh attacks painting Romney as a rich elitist unfairly gaining and hiding his money.

This tack by Gingrich had its uses, since it forced Romney to be more forthcoming about his finances. But it tells us nothing about what kind of president either Romney or Gingrich would be while making Romney turn to his own destructive campaigning in Florida, the next primary state.

And it coarsens the attitude of voters. It’s politics as winner-take-all war rather than civil conversation and dialogue about our hopes and needs as a community. Both major parties do it. Remember, negative campaigning succeeds. We all tend to let suspicion and innuendo take root in our imaginations, so it works in Democrats, Republicans, and independent voters.

News organizations in recent election years have tried to do more fact-checking on candidates in order to bring more respect for truth into campaigns. But these have very limited effectiveness. Dedicated fact-checking readers and viewers would have to be full-time checkers to keep up with the blizzard of claims and assertions being made. And most voters do not even try to check.

In fact, the latest surveys of voter behavior suggest that fewer of us even care about checking. We make no attempt to hear all sides of an issue. We already have our partisan, emotional “truth” and we won’t be bothered by reading or listening to sources or facts that question it.

Political races are rough contests. They always have been. The stakes are high: influence and power to affect the direction of common life, to say nothing of personal satisfaction and honor. But they ought not to be mud-wrestling contests.

It’s probably too much to hope for, but our nation could use a movement among voters to punish the politics of destruction — or rather, reward the politics of unity.

People who seek office in our competitive party environment will draw distinctions between their ideas, their vision, their sources of inspiration and those of opponents. They don’t have to do this by demonizing opponents. If they do, if that is their emphasis, division rather than a vision for unity, they do not deserve our vote.

When it seems that every candidate is on the negative track it requires careful attention to see and hear what they really stand for. It is worthwhile to focus in that direction, though. Don’t be satisfied with headlines. And don’t be satisfied with easy appeals to our prejudices — which we all have. Be a mature, discriminating voter with your own catholic vision of the future we want to share.

Make negative campaigning less successful.


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