Sunday, November 2, 2008

Who Will Win? The Debate is Already Lost ...

At this point, most people are waiting to learn the outcome the 2008 presidential election.

But, in one respect, we can already say that the electoral campaign has been a failure.

The point of elections isn't only to select a candidate for office. Participating in the democratic process -- engaging in elections and debates about candidates and policies -- should make us better people. It should make us wiser and increase our understanding of moral and political issues. At the very least, it shouldn't make us worse.

By this measure, the election of 2008 has certainly failed.

It has been riddled with instances of name-calling, demonizing, misrepresentation, exaggeration, ad hominem reasoning and more.

(Many of these instances have been cataloged by The Civil Debate Page, though many more are still waiting to be addressed.)

Generally, each side has used underhanded tactics in order to make us think the worst of their opponent. Frequently, they've tried to convince us that their own side is trying to do what's right and good, while the other side is selfish or unmoved by moral considerations.

For instance, those who have suggested that we should try to help people in need have been tarred as "socialists" or "redistributors" [AFP: McCain reignites Obama 'socialist' claim over 2001 interview (October 27, 2008)]. Meanwhile, those who have suggested that we should try to be self-sufficient and reward work and productivity have been ridiculed for supporting "Social Darwinism" [AP: Obama Accuses Bush of 'Social Darwinism' (March 27, 2007)]

Astonishingly, after expressing all this contempt for their opponents, each side insists that they want to unify the country, even though their behavior demonstrates that they have neither the will nor the knowledge requisite to do so.

Regardless of who wins or loses -- John McCain or Barack Obama -- what happens next is predictable.

The winning side will act as if they and their ideas have been overwhelmingly embraced by the nation, even though -- at best -- only a third of the country's residents will have voted for them (and many of those will have done so with reservations).

Each side will give a self-servingly false account of their fate (by way of the "only my opponent" caricature):

The winning side will say that they won by running a clean campaign (which is false), while insisting that their opponents did not behave virtuously (which is true), resulting in their loss.

The losing side will say that they behaved virtuously during the campaign (also false), while insisting that the winning side played dirty (true), resulting in their loss.

The winner will make a dramatic appeal, "reaching across the aisle" to the loser in order to unite the country. Given past behavior, the loser will (correctly) judge this to be insincere, and turn it down. The winners will accuse them of being stubborn, ignorant and/or deliberately subversive, and will call them sore losers.

Resentment will accrue on both sides, which will degenerate into more name-calling, misrepresentation, etc., and four years from now we'll hold another election so we can do it all over again.

Given this, does it matter who wins the election? Both sides will have succeeded mostly in making their supporters think the worst of their opponents, thereby encouraging the worst in us, inciting our hatreds and deluding us into thinking that our political adversaries are evil, selfish, and stupid.

(You can see it already in the desperate, fearful hatred people express, particularly toward Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Bush, and Sarah Palin.)

They'll have succeeded in making us worse people in the name of improving government.

Is this sort of politics any place for good people?

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