The MacLamity

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Sunday, October 31, 2004


Like death, dirty campaigning is always with us and is one of those strange bad things where the only thing worse than them is their abolition. It is a bad world where Dukakis supposedly lost an election because the Republicans ran an ad that somehow appealed to racists and so the votes for Bush Sr. were racist and they shouldn't count and it's so unfair. But the alternative isn't pleasant. In this fantastic article on Rove's polymorphous nastiness, there is a brief portrait of prelapsarian Alabama into which the serpent Rove introduced the forbidden fruit of negative campaigning:
Judicial races in Alabama were customarily low-key affairs. "Campaigning" tended to entail little more than presenting one's qualifications at a meeting of the bar association, and because the state was so staunchly Democratic, sometimes not even that much was required. It was not uncommon for a judge to step down before the end of his term and handpick a successor, who then ran unopposed.
What strikes me is that when Rove introduced his dirty tricks to the Alabama court circuit he also made voting significant. And votes are how we want things decided, isn't it?

As much as I dislike dirty tricks, complaints about them contradict one of the fundamental assumptions of democracy: that voters can decide things for themselves and can and should be trusted to so. If we can't trust voters to respond to the Willie Horton ad like rational human beings then why should we give them the vote? It's an assumption that shares with Thucydides the suspicion that what is called democracy is really just the rule of an elite few who can manipulate crowds. You hope that the manipulators are good people the same way you hope a King might be a good king. But you cannot choose them. They push a button somewhere deep inside you and you do anything they say (the following's a weird Victorian translation, sadly, the MIT server cuts off its great translation of the second book of Thucydides just before this part):
In this speech did Pericles endeavour to appease the anger of the Athenians towards himself, and withal to withdraw their thoughts from the present affliction [plague, confinement within city walls, Spartans razing land]. But they, though [...] rather inclined to the war; yet they were every one in particular grieved for their several losses: the poor, because entering the war with little, they lost that little; and the rich, because they had lost fair possessions, together with goodly houses and costly furniture in them, in the country; but the greatest matter of all was, that they had war instead of peace.
And altogether, they deposed not their anger till they had first fined him in a sum of money. Nevertheless, not long after (as is the fashion of the multitude) they made him general again, and committed the whole state to his administration. For the sense of their domestic losses was now dulled; and for the need of the commonwealth, they prized him more than any other whatsoever.
For as long as he was in authority in the city in time of peace, he governed the same with moderation, and was a faithful watchman of it; and in his time it was at the greatest. And after the war was on foot, it is manifest that he therein also foresaw what it could do. He lived after the war began two years and six months.
And his foresight in the war was best known after his death. For he told them, that if they would be quiet, and look to their navy, and during this war seek no further dominion, nor hazard the city itself, they should then have the upper hand. But they did contrary in all: and in such other things besides as seemed not to concern the war, managed the state, according to their private ambition and covetousness, perniciously both for themselves and their confederates. What succeeded well, the honour and profit of it came most to private men; and what miscarried, was to the city’s detriment in the war.
The reason whereof was this: that being a man of great power both for his dignity and wisdom, and for bribes manifestly the most incorrupt, he freely controled the multitude; and was not so much led by them, as he led them. Because, having gotten his power by no evil arts, he would not humour them in his speeches, but out of his authority durst anger them with contradiction.
Therefore, whensoever he saw them out of season insolently bold, he would with his orations put them into a fear; and again, when they were afraid without reason, he would likewise erect their spirits and embolden them. It was in name, a state democratical; but in fact, a government of the principal man. But they that came after, being more equal amongst themselves, and affecting every one to be the chief, applied themselves to the people and let go the care of the commonwealth. From whence amongst many other errors, as was likely in a great and dominant city, proceeded also the voyage into Sicily; which was not so much upon mistaking those whom they went against, as for want of knowledge in the senders of what was necessary for those that went the voyage.
For through private quarrels about who should bear the greatest sway with the people, they both abated the vigour of the army, and then also first troubled the state at home with division. Being overthrown in Sicily, and having lost, besides other ammunition, the greatest part of their navy, and the city being then in sedition; yet they held out three years, both against their first enemies and the Sicilians with them, and against most of their revolted confederates besides, and also afterwards against Cyrus the king’s son, who took part with, and sent money to the Peloponnesians to maintain their fleet; and never shrunk till they had overthrown themselves with private dissensions. So much was in Pericles above other men at that time, that he could foresee by what means the city might easily have outlasted the Peloponnesians in this war.
[This is where I left off a month ago, not really knowing how i could follow such a virtuoso pretentious quote from the classic. But this article from The Boston Globe, on books that serve up American history in the Salami slices of election years has a few great reminders of how dirty democracy is and seems always will be:
Jefferson's Federalist foes described him as "a howling atheist," the "head of the French party in America" -- this at a time when war with France appeared imminent -- and, for good measure, the "greatest villain in existence." [...]
The election of 1912 and its wider context, for example, is full of sharply rendered incident -- from the assassination attempt against Teddy Roosevelt to the brawl that erupted on the floor of the Republican Convention when it became clear that incumbent William Howard Taft had the clout to exclude many pro-Roosevelt delegates. Chace (a longtime writer on foreign affairs who died earlier this month) is excellent on this and much more, not least in tracing the outcome of the events of 1912 -- including wartime President Woodrow Wilson's draconian suppression of dissent, which makes the Patriot Act look like an initiative of the ACLU. Yet the entire narrative is framed as the beginning of a conflict between noble Democrats ("progressive idealists," Chace calls them) and nasty proponents of "conservative values" who gained their ascendancy "with the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.