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In 2010, American politics raced for the bottom
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In 2010, American politics raced for the bottom

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

The American political culture has taken a turn for the worse. It was not only the money, its sources, or the interminable length of the campaign, which certainly were painful in their own right. It was not only the polarizing rhetoric or the unbearably negative campaigns or the persistent ridicule. It was, unfortunately, something much deeper. It was politicians’ disregard for the intelligence of the American voter and the cynical attack-politics invoked from all sides. It was the ad hominem attacks and the anger which pervaded this election season.

The public may be frustrated and scared, but this campaign season fueled the fears and offered few realistic solutions.

Like many recent cycles, this year’s election operated in the gutter of American politics — only worse. Something is wrong with the American political system when candidates are judged not by policy initiatives and creative ideas to solve the serious economic, social, and international problems, but how effectively they project themselves on television’s entertainment programs. From the days when then Governor Bill Clinton played the saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show and went to MTV studios to woo the “youth vote”, to the jovial appearances of Senator John McCain on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Show with David Letterman, to the degrading appearance of President Barack Obama on The View and his embarrassing performance last week on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, American campaigns and politicians have truly hit rock bottom.

While it is important for presidents and candidates to reach out to the numerous publics to excite their interest and encourage their support, this transparent exploitation of the lowest level of appeal is exceedingly disconcerting.

Something is very wrong with a political system when even before the votes are counted, the Republican leader in the in the U.S. Senate can declare that the GOP’s agenda for the next two years is to ensure that Obama is defeated in 2012. Of course Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) wants a Republican to be elected in 2012, but is it not the job of the U.S. Senate to govern the country over the next two years? As Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) had declared in the months before the final vote on health-care reform, he cared more about defeating the Obama health-care proposal and making it the president’s Waterloo than possibly providing health-care coverage to 30 million Americans.

Something is wrong with our system when it is only about winning and not about governing. It is pathetic that Vince Lombardi’s axiom for football is now the guide for American politics: “Winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing!”

Before the rise of the Tea Party, American experienced other grassroots movements, including the Green Party, Ross Perot’s America’s Reform Party, George Wallace’s American Independent Party, Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat Party, and the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas. What distinguished most of these other movements and parties was that they had a specific, constructive agenda. This year, the major parties and the Tea Party Movement were about a shift in values and an admiration of the lowest common denominator.

A polarized electorate and blocs of angry voters are also not good for the Jews. Moderation, toleration, and compromise are the best environment within which Jews thrive best. To that end the Jewish Council for Public Affairs just issued a statement that seeks to encourage public leaders to engage in a more civil political discourse. “When differences spiral down into uncivil acrimony,” warns the statement, “the dignity of individuals and community is diminished, and our precious democracy is weakened.” Only civility can present hope and opportunity to solve problems. Its absence will make it “more difficult, if not impossible, to open minds, much less find common ground.”

Conflict resolution and compromise are the way of American politics since the days of the Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention. This year it was about scoring points and winning. If the new Congress and the White House do not assume a fresh and more constructive approach in the next few months and dedicate themselves to governing, then this republic may indeed be severely challenged not only from terrorism from abroad but from political dysfunction at home.

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