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The Real Source of Gladiator Politics

May 20, 2008

Robert Reich

I was on television recently, debating a conservative. It’s something I do fairly often. During a commercial break, the producer spoke into my earpiece. “A bit more energy,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I answered, slightly hurt. I thought I’d been doing a fairly good job scoring points.

“Rip into him. Only three minutes in the next segment and we want to make the most of it.”

Is it possible that during the months leading up to this Election Day the American people will be treated to the kind of campaign we’ve all been dreaming about?

John McCain says he’s intent on waging a respectful and civil presidential campaign. Barack Obama says the same. Is it possible that during the months leading up to this Election Day the American people will be treated to the kind of campaign we’ve all been dreaming about, in which the two candidates debate the big issues and avoid the low blows?

We’ve grown so accustomed to gutter politics we’ve even turned it into verbs — “to bork” (to impugn one’s opponent’s character), “to swiftboat” (to lie about a critical fact in one’s opponent’s biography), and, perhaps, “to reverend wright” (to create the impression that one’s opponent shares a set of beliefs with a person he has associated with).

All three require a relentless attack that feeds on itself. Unproven allegations are repeated so often that the attack itself becomes news, as does the manner in which the target responds, after which point the question becomes whether the attack has hurt its target and, if so, whether the damage is fatal. The target is then watched for any signs of personal distress, defensiveness, or anger. Can the target take it? Will the target recant, backtrack, cover up, apologize, reveal more, disassociate himself, go on a counter-attack? What does the target’s response tell us about his or her character? The story then shifts to the media — are they continuing to report it? Are they being responsible in doing so? And after this self-referential orgy, the story moves to the polls — is the public losing confidence in the candidate? In the days or weeks this goes on, the target has no opportunity to talk about anything other than the attack, and the public hears about nothing else, so the target’s polls may fall, which creates the final story: Can the target ever come back?

Character assassination, outright lies, and guilt by association are hardly new to American politics.

Character assassination, outright lies, and guilt by association are hardly new to American politics. Aaron Burr, New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, Senator Joe McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover were avid practitioners. But the modern media, coupled more recently with the blogosphere and YouTube, have made these kinds of attacks even more potent. Political consultants — those snakelike creatures who slither through the swamps and sinkholes of politics — have turned all three into low-brow but highly lucrative art forms, cynically valued by the media for their effectiveness. And so-called “527’s — the headless and mysterious bodies that grow in the interstices of our election laws — have become their launching pads. In the logic of this underworld, “going negative” is no longer considered a campaign option; it is a necessity. Although it may injure the perpetrator (if it can ever be traced back), it will cause greater harm to the opponent.

for every Reverend Wright, a Reverend Haggee; for every “we’ll be in Iraq for a hundred years gaffe, a “bitter” one

So what are the odds that McCain and Obama will make an historic break with this sordid tradition and take the high road instead? Each man may sincerely wish to do so. Both have based their candidacies, to some extent, on creating a new politics that rejects the gutter-ball tactics of the old. Each has enough ammunition against the other (for every Reverend Wright, a Reverend Haggee; for every “we’ll be in Iraq for a hundred years gaffe, a “bitter” one) to suggest the wisdom of mutual arms control. Each is distancing himself from his party’s mud-slinging — the Republican Party is already airing ads linking Obama to Wright, which McCain is disavowing but not shutting down – thereby putting the candidate on a high road even as the party takes the low. Mostly, though, the public is fed up with the rancor — isn’t it?

I asked the producer who was talking into my earpiece why I had to rip into my opponent. “We see viewership minute by minute,” he said, hurriedly (the commercial break was about over). “When you really go after each other, we get a spike.”

It’s the spike I’m worried about. I chose not to rip into my opponent but, then again, I’m not running for president. The public says it’s tired of gladiator politics. But take a closer look. Political ripping and slashing is is one of America’s favorite spectator sports. And the media that informs us about the candidates, and the advertisers who dictate the terms by which they do so, have data to prove it.

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books (including his most recent, Supercapitalism). Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s “Marketplace” are heard by nearly five million people. This entry originally appeared on his blog.

Copyright 2008 Robert B. Reich

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