Demagoguery Works


The presidential campaign is getting nasty in its last 100 days. Actually, that’s not a surprise. The campaigns always do. They always have, going back to the days of the early Republic. They probably always will.

It is a mistake to expect intelligent discussion of the issues in a political campaign. Even if such a discussion took place, the press would probably ignore it as being too dull to bother with. People like to say they don’t approve of negative campaigning, but that’s one of those cases where words and reality don’t match.

American campaigns feature demagoguery, and there is a fairly well-thought-out reason for it. Years ago, a manual for winning elections explained that modern campaigns are aimed at what is called the "apathetic middle."

The theory is that there are a certain percentage of people who will vote Democrat no matter what and a certain percentage who will vote Republican no matter who is on the ticket. Usually these hard-core partisans are not enough to constitute a majority. Each candidate therefore strives to get enough of the apathetic voters to add to his partisan base and achieve a majority.

Since these people in the apathetic middle don’t really care that much about voting or politics or the issues facing the country, the candidates resort to demagoguery, which in modern times is often a collection of promises: "I will win the war, reduce the price of gasoline, balance the budget, fix Social Security and Medicare, stop global warming and see that every American has a decent job."

Couched negatively, "My opponent will lose the war, is responsible for high gasoline prices, will spend us into bankruptcy and will do nothing to fix Social Security or stop global warming."

Well, at least these days our candidates don’t have to fight duels. Andrew Jackson’s opponents conspired to get him into a duel with an expert marksman who had killed 20 or more opponents. Fortunately, Jackson survived. Alexander Hamilton was killed by Aaron Burr. Both men were Revolutionary War heroes. Terrible things were said about both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson during their campaigns.

So, comparatively speaking, Sen. John McCain’s claim that Barack Obama would rather shoot hoops than visit wounded troops is rather mild, though false.

Another example candidates have to remember are the speeches of Brutus and Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar." After Caesar’s assassination, Brutus makes a factual, well-reasoned speech. Antony demagogues the heck out of it, and the mob goes after Brutus. As injurious to the commonweal as demagoguery is, reason has a difficult time competing against it.

American elections seem to be decided on the basis of emotions fueled by demagoguery, not reason. Look at the last one. George Bush, who spent the war safe in the Texas National Guard, convinced Americans that he would be a better commander in chief than John Kerry, who had earned medals for bravery in combat. Kerry’s anti-war rhetoric after he came home from Vietnam came back to haunt him.

It’s quite clear that the Republican strategy for this election is to attack Obama as inexperienced, unpatriotic and possibly dangerous. It might work, provided McCain doesn’t go bonkers in public or ramble on about his grandchildren during the debates. Obama may well play Brutus to the Republicans’ Antony-like mud machine, proving once again that intellectual explanations can’t compete with snappy sound bites.

I disagree with much of what Obama believes, and I’m afraid McCain might wake up grouchy one morning and start World War III. Like everyone else, though, I’m stuck with the choice our two worn-out, dysfunctional political parties have given us. Ah, well, the Earth is still a beautiful place. Let us all smell the roses while we may. No matter who wins, there’s not likely to be any great changes.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.