The election is just a little over a week away and the political rhetoric is getting pretty heated. Some of that rhetoric is coming from the campaigns themselves. Much of it is coming from political pundits. Unfortunately, a whole lot of the worst of it is coming from regular folks like you and me. Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have conversations about politics. It’s just to say that we should try to avoid demonizing those who disagree with us.
John McCain’s and Barack Obama’s respective campaigns have become increasingly negative over the past month. Obama’s ads have misrepresented McCain’s position on several issues (notably stem cells), while also characterizing him as erratic and out of touch.
McCain’s ads have likewise misrepresented Obama’s positions, while also suggesting that he’s disrespectful, not ready to lead and even dangerous. McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, went so far as to declare that Obama is “someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists.”
While I don’t particularly care for the tone of statements such as these, neither campaign has done anything particularly egregious relative to history. In the fondly remembered campaign of 1800, for example, Thomas Jefferson claimed that John Adams was a criminal and tyrant, and accused him of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character.” Adams, in turn, charged Jefferson with atheism and cowardice, and argued that he was “a mean spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian [woman], sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”
All of which is to say that anyone who claims that this is the most negative election in history clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
The pundits have come closer to the outright slander that marked America’s early campaigns. Liberal columnists such as Maureen Dowd have been calling George Bush an illiterate idiot for a long time, and they have lifted that label wholesale and hung it around Palin’s neck. Conservative pundits have been having their own fun with Joe Biden; Michael Medved, for example, has repeatedly called him a clueless schmuck.
As for the presidential candidates themselves, the liberal pundits recently have been attacking McCain’s attack ads, arguing that the former prisoner of war has lost his honor. Conservative pundits, meanwhile, mostly have been focusing on Obama’s personal relationships, though more recently they’ve also taken to calling him a socialist.
Townhall.com’s Laura Hollis took it a step further than that in her column of Oct. 16, declaring Obama’s “policies are communist, pure and simple.” She went on to compare Obama to Stalin, Pol Pot and Chairman Mao. And then to Hitler.
Even this sort of thing is par for the historical course. In the 1828 election, newspapers accused John Quincy Adams of being a pimp, while other papers called Andrew Jackson’s wife a slut. One paper wrote, “General Jackson’s mother was a common prostitute … who married a mulatto.” Yet another paper printed a poster depicting the coffins of six militiamen whom the paper claimed Jackson had murdered. To his credit, Adams was disgusted with the rumors and refused to get involved. Jackson, on the other hand, was so infuriated that he gave newspapers guidelines on how to best attack his opponent. For what it’s worth, Jackson won.
Of course, just because this stuff has always happened doesn’t mean we should allow ourselves to get wrapped up in it. On the contrary, as voters we have the responsibility to see through this sort of thing and elect representatives based not on misrepresentations and lies, but rather on the merits of their proposed policies. Unfortunately, many of the most inflammatory attacks have been spread by the people for the people, through word of mouth and e-mail. Most disturbingly (to me, at least), many of these ugly rumors have been religious in nature.
While it’s somewhat unfair to label Palin as stupid based on her interviews, those sessions indeed have been eminently mockable and, as such, could imply stupidity. I’m less forgiving to those who use her more or less mainstream, if conservative, Christianity as evidence of a lack of intelligence.
Many of the rumors spread about Palin attempt to paint her as an especially far right religious zealot who speaks in tongues, bans books, supported Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign, and wants creationism taught exclusively in science class. There are, of course, Christians who believe in and would support these actions. Palin, however, doesn’t appear to be one of them.
These rumors slander not only Palin, but also conservative Christians in general, the vast majority of whom are far more reasonable than liberals tend to give them credit for being. Palin’s faith isn’t really a good reason to vote for her, as some Christians seem to be doing, but it’s a worse reason to vote against her.
Far more outrageous than the Palin rumors are the rumors that have hounded Obama ever since he rose to prominence. These rumors have been remarkably effective and widespread, with nearly one out of every six McCain supporters believing that Obama is a Muslim, and less than half believing that he’s a Christian.
There are racist and xenophobic undertones to these rumors, but I think those take a back seat to the more widespread problem of entangling religious and political beliefs.
For many people, it is apparently not enough to simply disagree with Obama’s mainstream liberalism and liberal Christianity. Instead they must declare him a communist and a pretend Christian who’s actually a radical Muslim. They have to, for some reason, demonize him. In so doing, they demonize all those who share his espoused beliefs. It’s an extreme version of the basic “No liberal can be a true Christian” argument, which is as flatly untrue and offensive as the “All Christians are theocratic wingnuts” argument the Palin rumors convey.
The truth is that reasonable people can disagree both in politics and religion. However this election turns out, whether the radical Muslim or erratic old man wins, the country probably will not implode, just as it didn’t when the hermaphrodite, the atheistic coward, the pimp, and the murderous son of a prostitute ran it. Considering all the apparent scoundrels we’ve put in charge, America’s proven itself remarkably resilient.
Justin Fowler is a student at University College of Bangor. He may be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org or on his blog burnstheair.blogspot.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.