Negativity as a political strategy…

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“Everyone’s tax money is going to waste because we have incompetent people running the government.”
 
 

 

– Pat Snyder, 550 Radio

 * * * 

I was talking to someone about an issue recently and offered the observation that while I didn’t think we were outnumbered, I was certain that we were being outshouted. It’s a pretty simple matter to deal with these things in legislative bodies because if that’s truly the case and you bring something to a vote, you can simply call for a roll call. Ten people screaming “NO!” after 20 people voting “yes” in a normal speaking voice might screw up the decibel meter, but this isn’t a game show and that’s not how outcomes are determined. Likewise, an aggressive campaign by a trailing candidate or a referendum initiative can look like it’s carrying a lot more weight with the populace than it really is. The only thing that really counts in the end is what can actually be counted and that’s votes.

Political philosophies are close enough to religious beliefs for people to regularly mix them together and it’s not just in the Middle East. Given the opportunity, I’m convinced that some people in the religious right would be only too happy to install a theocracy right here in the land of e. pluribus unum to reflect their religious views in all aspects of public policy.

Atheists, on the other hand, are a distinct minority in this country and in most other places. But they have one thing going for them as a movement and that is this: they’re totally together on the major tenet of their philosophy. They can all say in complete unison that “There is no god” and that’s that. While they may not being singing out of a hymnal, they’re all on the same page. When it comes to separation of church and state, there are plenty of times when a lot of us are happy to sing right along with them in terms of outcomes, as well we should.

Contrast that with those who are not atheists. They’ve got a big problem because they’re dealing with a nearly unending spectrum of views within their basic belief system. There are Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jews and more. Within each major religion, there are denominations and sects. There are orthodox and reformed. There are organizational structures in which people relentlessly protect their self-interests, resisting mergers, cooperation and affiliations that might post the risk of diminishing their personal positions within the different power structures. Then there are agnostics, Unitarians and Deists. Many people may believe that man was created in god’s image, but would still have to concede that it’s a pretty damned poor image a lot of the time.

The divides between these groups can be anything from relatively minor to extremely significant. The devil is literally in the details. Here’s the important part: once people start to focus on their differences instead of the broad, general principles upon which they could probably agree, they become mired in philosophical and doctrinal debates. Like Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, they’ve been doing it for thousands of years – and the enemy of your enemy isn’t necessarily your friend, either.

Politics has always involved big doses of negativity, but it seems to me that using negativity as an overarching political strategy has become far more commonplace these days. Any new initiative or approach to a problem is greeted with a series of searing talking points from the opposite side of the aisle designed to sow doubt and derail any chance of a significant accomplishment by the wrong people.

It’s rarely about trying to make what might be a halfway decent idea even better because to do that, you would have to be willing to acknowledge that the original source had some credibility, after all. If you can’t be smart or ethical, at least you can do your best to make your competition look stupid, incompetent and corrupt.  (You can tune in to 550 Radio any morning to hear simplistic, blanket pronouncements dealing with any of the more wrenching issues of the day like the one I randomly chose today during the 10 minutes I could stand to listen.)

Is it any wonder that after repeating this cycle of action-reaction-inaction thousands of times and then trotting out the occasional exception to prove the rule, a lot of people see elected officials from city hall to Capitol Hill as stupid, incompetent and corrupt? Is it any surprise that some of the best potential leaders and problem-solvers would choose to steer clear of placing themselves in such an environment as the price of trying to make a positive impact?

Allowing such an environment to become and remain the dominating feature of our public policy-making landscape threatens to leave us with another thing in common between politics and religion: going to hell.

JR

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