Friday, November 2, 2012


Harry Targ

We live in a country in which wealth and power is grotesquely unequal and getting more so. In such an historical context, the political system functions in two ways. First, and foremost, the political system is designed to create myths, rituals, ideologies, and routinized forms of behavior to reinforce and protect the inequalities that are deeply embedded in the society. This function is manifested in patriotic rituals, appeals to American exceptionalism, prioritizing attention to elections as the one expression of political choice, and the replication of a mythological history of the country’s past and current institutions. Most of us were educated to believe that the American experience has been a two hundred fifty year struggle to achieve perfection. And perfection is the trajectory of America.
But in a democracy, even a flawed one, the institutions of governance offer those who are victims of an unequal distribution of wealth and power an opportunity to change, if not transform, politics and economics. It is critical to realize that the electoral arena and the institutions of government constitute contested terrain. While the tools in the struggle for justice are as unequally distributed as the wealth and power, masses of people--workers, women, minorities, and others historically marginalized--have won victories through political struggle. The historical drive for social and economic justice, American history suggests, has involved mobilizations within the routinized political processes, particularly elections, and in communities, at workplaces, and in the streets. From this point of view all forms of struggle matter. The forms vary in times and places but they all matter nevertheless.
Looking at the electoral arena particularly in a country where the inequalities are so stark and the disenchantment growing, the morality of the discourse of candidates for public office--what they say about themselves and their adversaries--has declined dramatically. The 2012 election campaign began just after Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election. Republican spokespersons declared that their priority project was to make Obama a one-term president. That was followed with four years of hate-filled, racist attacks on the President, peaking first in the Tea Party campaigns and victories in 2010. After 2010, the Republican presidential candidates shifted into high gear with lies, distortions, and clearly racist, sexist, and anti-worker sentiments as standard fare.
The presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney may be evidencing a new low in the history of electoral campaigns. What is a central feature of his 2012 strategy is the regular pattern of proclaiming positions that are tailored for the audiences the candidate is speaking before. Candidate Romney has been pro- and anti-choice, for peace in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf and for war against Syria and Iran, for the maintenance of medical insurance coverage for persons with preexisting conditions and against it, for bailing out the auto industry and against it, cutting the federal budget and increasing military spending, cutting taxes for the rich and not cutting taxes for the rich, and defunding FEMA and maintaining it.
This past week as Obama was acting “presidential” dealing with the tragedies of Hurricane Sandy, the Romney campaign was distributing television ads in Ohio declaring that a Jeep manufacturing plant in Toledo was shutting down with jobs shipped to China. This claim was so contrary to Chrysler (the parent company) policy that its CEO issued a rejoinder. Jeep was not shutting down its Ohio operations; if anything there would be increases in jobs at the manufacturing facility. It is unimaginable for those not in the local auto industry to fully grasp the sense of fear and despair that workers in the potentially affected plant might feel when hearing that they would lose their jobs. The lie in these ads was targeted at a particular audience to engender shifts in the intention of Ohio auto workers from voting for the President, whose actions saved the auto industry, to Romney who was denying the efficacy of the President’s policy.
Candidate Romney has been making claims on a whole range of subjects since he began running for president years ago. While the American style of democracy encourages lying as a tool of campaigning for public office, the Romney campaign has taken this tool to a new level. The candidate, and the Tea Party constituency who constitute his base, has embraced a tactic of “shifting lies.” Say one thing before audience A, another before audience B. When the usually docile media calls him on A or B claim, he moves on to claim C.
The level of discourse in the end has therefore sunk to a new low. American politics has become a verbal jousting match between candidates who now are rewarded for saying anything to anybody. Along with a radical transformation of the distribution of wealth and power, the American people need to develop a whole new way of talking about politics. Lying, particularly shifting lies, must be eliminated. Honesty, integrity, basic decency and respect for all remain values worth fighting for.