November and the “other”

Fact-based reality can be a problematic land in which to dwell. I view many of the campaign ads that have emerged this election season with a mixture of amusement and repulsion; I attribute the combination to my growing cynicism about politics.

I’ve found that I distrust news analysis more and more as well. Both partisan and ostensibly nonpartisan sources like CNN tend to take what seems to be a lazy approach to this: identify what appears to be a trend, construct an elaborate narrative around it, and repeat until perception becomes reality. The problem is that I don’t believe that even Americans, not known for being politically astute in general, are quite this dumb. The mass media retconned Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton because no one really believed in 2008 that he had a serious chance of becoming the Democratic nominee; after it happened and after his election to the presidency, it was decided that the Democrats were better able to “energize their base” and “get out the vote” and used internet funding to a hitherto-unknown extent. The media had to invent reasons that their prognostications were wrong–reasons that went beyond simply underestimating the American populace.

The Tea Party is the wonderful new meme this year. Everywhere you look people are saying the public wants to vote out incumbents and people want to “take back their government.” There is something of an ugly undercurrent to this phenomenon, which is the resurgence of the politics of the “other.” People have long questioned whether this movement is racist at its core because it has arisen in response to America’s first black presidency. This analysis seems overly simplistic. A lot of what we are seeing in both mainstream Republican and less-mainstream Tea Party ads and campaign stops is an attack on the outsider, the person who doesn’t belong, who isn’t “one of us.” It’s xenophobia not racism, but it’s not really very pretty either.

Here are a couple of local examples: David Vitter is running for reelection and his most serious opposition is from Representative Charlie Melancon, a Democrat. Here are a couple of Vitter’s campaign ads that have been running on TV here in Baton Rouge (ad 1, ad 2). In the first, he attacks Melancon for supporting Barack Obama in the race for the presidency two years ago and for supporting his economic and health insurance reform policies. There is nothing terribly unusual about this–just reading that description, it may sound like a typical negative campaign ad. However, the ad is filled with imagery (Obama campaign buttons and paraphernalia, a photo of Melancon shaking Obama’s hand, a pair of running shoes, and a lava lamp) meant to highlight Melancon as an outsider, tagging him as the “other” by association with the president. The lava lamp, which will bring to mind the youth culture of the ’60s and ’70s to viewers of a certain age, is a particularly interesting inclusion. For what it’s worth, I do have to point out that Vitter’s attempts to paint the economic crisis, corporate bailouts and stimulus packages as an evil perpetrated by Democrats is cynical to its core; most economists concur that without the Bush-Obama stimulus as a response to the economic crisis (which was wrought in part by the overall “wink-and-nod” approach to regulation of industry that took place during the Bush years, as well as the unholy merging of commercial and investment banking made possible during the Clinton years with the help of a Republican-dominated Congress), we would have already sunk into a true depression.

The second ad is even stranger, at least for someone campaigning in Louisiana. The ad depicts Mexicans crossing into America through a large hole in a chain-link fence while being greeted and warmly welcomed by representatives of Charlie Melancon, who lavish them with money and cars. There are so many bizarre elements to this ad, one scarcely knows where to begin. Vitter implies that Mexicans are coming north to both take jobs from Americans and get on public assistance simultaneously, which isn’t even an internally-consistent idea. Of course there is no fence between Mexico and Louisiana; I think any Mexican who wanted to come to America illegally would be crazy to swim the Gulf to crawl upon our muddy shores. Here again, Mexican immigrants are the “other,” although a decidedly odd choice for a state in which illegal immigration is rarely discussed.

Next, let’s look at the race for lieutenant governor. A newcomer to politics, Democrat attorney Caroline Fayard is challenging longtime Louisiana politician and current Secretary of State Republican Jay Dardenne for this office. Fayard is running as a political outsider, the classic archetype of the “new blood” who will approach an office with fresh perspectives and ideas. Would she be better in the role of lieutenant governor than Dardenne? It’s hard to say. But I am fascinated by this ad by the Dardenne campaign. He twists the idea of Fayard as outsider by declaring her an “other”: a liberal who doesn’t belong among the conservatives of Louisiana. Dardenne also takes Vitter’s tack of blaming Democrats for the economic meltdown, essentially accusing Fayard of profiting while the rest of us struggle. He associates her with conservative bugaboos Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and William Jefferson as well as, curiously, Cleo Fields, who is virtually unknown outside of Baton Rouge. The ad says that Fayard supports gay marriage and opposes the death penalty (two things that make me want to vote for her more, but which are also splendidly irrelevant to the position for which she is running) and closes by stating that Fayard might be well-suited to a place like Massachusetts or New York but not Louisiana.

In the end, I think this kind of campaigning only gets you so far. Candidates, like people, have to stand for something, instead of simply berating the “other.” I don’t believe that masses of incumbents will be tossed out on their ears, despite what pundits may say. Historical evidence suggests that it’s not easy to unseat an incumbent, because they have name recognition and often funding advantages. Maybe I’m wrong; we’ll find out in about two weeks.

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