The freest of political systems tend to be rowdy, and this year's American campaign is no exception. In the battle to sway the presumed (but possibly non-existent) undecided voter, almost any assertion can be expected, and because a detailed rebuttal always sounds like the plea of the guilty, it is much easier to attack than to defend. As a consequence, the campaign will be expensive--more than half a billion dollars spent already---and unrefined.
The latest exchanges in this arena are instructive, if only for their resemblance to a schoolyard argument among pre-adolescents, and they explain the low regard with which Americans hold their leaders and the political process.
Much is being made of Mitt Romney's taxes, but if he paid less than the law said he should have, the IRS should be all over him. But if the complaint is instead that the law is not fair, then the Congress is the real culprit, not Romney. There is a vanishingly small number of Americans who, on purpose, pay more than the law requires, and it doesn't make anybody a bad person if he doesn't voluntarily surrender more money to Washington than it says it wants. Giving Romney a hard time about his taxes is sophistry.
In a similar vein, some partisans have launched an attack on the White House for making public, for political purposes, sensitive information, particularly that about the operation during which Osama bin Laden was killed. Now, the best way to handle all suspicions, revelations and accusations about classified information is to keep mum. The Israelis come closest to the ideal in that they neither confirm nor deny anything, but American politicians can't help themselves. That this president felt it politically expedient to tout the details of the Abbotabad operation diminishes him and his office. But he isn't the first to pander in this way, and previous presidents have said, and done, things that were at least as injurious. Giving Obama a hard time for gloating about ridding the world of bin Laden is also sophistry.
Shallow people and questionable tactics are part of American political life, but they are an increasing annoyance to the majority of Americans, who are alienated from the system to which they have entrusted their future. The damage to the Republic can be seen in the refusal of elected officials to solve problems that affect the nation, the low esteem in which politicians are held, and voter apathy. The latter drives politicians to greater hyperbole, which mismanages the expectations of the electorate and begins the destructive cycle again.
Many people are familiar with the quixotic quest of Charles M. Schulz's Charlie Brown, perennially thwarted in his attempt to kick a football held by Lucy, who at the very last second snatches the ball from the ground. Charlie Brown kicks at the missing ball, and he ends painfully sprawled on his back. Every time he readies for a field goal, he begs her to hold the ball, and each time Lucy promises that she will hold it long enough for him to kick it...but she never does.
American politics are similar: politicians are Lucy, and the electorate is Charlie Brown. Politicians promise to run clean campaigns on the issues and to avoid ad hominem arguments, but no matter how convincing they try to be, they don't mean it, and pretty soon we are awash in superficialities and outright nonsense. It should be no more important that Romney paid only 13% in taxes than the fact that Obama collected more than thirty times the income of the average American household. And if some people are incensed that the current president used sensitive information to laud himself, they are dreaming if they think the next president won't do the same.