Main Street: Already Lost

I am not sure who is going to win this year’s presidential election campaign, but I already know who the loser will be. It’s the same sap who’s come out on the short end for the last two decades and more: the person on Main Street.

Wait, you say. Hasn’t this election begun to turn on “populism?” Isn’t Joe Biden the Working Man? Isn’t Sarah Palin the Hockey Mom?

Well, sure they are, but populism is not Main Street. Populism — the way it’s being practiced today — is all about anger and cultural warfare. Washington, Wall Street, bad. Wal Mart, Target, good.

A recent column by Bob Beckel and Cal Thomas in USA Today has them taking a stab at finding common ground. “The idea of a culture war seems so 1990s, doesn’t it?” says one. The other frets, “We’re in danger of heading down that pothole-filled road once again.” Having expressed their preference for reasonableness, the two spend the rest of the column bickering about whether Americans want more health care or less same-sex marriages. They argue over who started the “culture wars” and who is to blame for continuing them. Finally, almost an afterthought, they find something they seem to be able to agree on, and that is that a presidential election is not the place to find “quieter moments of reflection . . . with honest give and take.”

That, in a nutshell, is where we are at. Even people who are trying to find common ground can’t quite do so. We talk past one another, our rhetoric filled with anger and finger pointing, until finally we come upon a dispirited realization: that presidential campaigns are no longer designed around the idea of helping citizens make a choice as to who should lead, but instead are built on a foundation of warfare. I win, you lose. Just as war has evolved from arranged battles to guerrilla asymmetries, so too have campaigns shifted from debates to shin-kicks.

Where candidates used to “stand” for election, they now “run.” Where they used to seek to “govern,” they now say the seek office in order to “fight.”

Even within the campaigns (and, more stridently, the supporters) of Senators MccCain and Obama — of which each man can be made a strong case that they are willing and able to work across divides, placing results ahead of party interest — neither can seem to refrain from phony outrage and disgusting taunts.

Twenty years ago the political world laid hold of the power of organized fear in the image of Willie Horton which in part sunk Michael Dukakis’ candidacy for president. While not the first campaign ad to play on base emotion, it is widely regarded as the archetype. Since then, it’s gotten worse each year. Scare tactics are now the norm, not just in commercials but in almost every campaign communication. And they are not limited to one political party.

This leaves the folks on Main Street in the lurch. It literally perverts them by, playing on their base instincts of fear, hatred, and their urge to support their team at all costs. They see higher stakes, more dire consequences, more reason for outrage, than reality would dictate — all because the machinery of politics cynically eggs them on. My side is attacked – I must hit back and hard. People, under such pressure, tend to lose their equanimity and act more like face-painted sports fans at the Big Game. They’ve been ginned up, whipped into a frenzy.

I recently had the opportunity to eavesdrop on a political conversation between adolescent children. Depending on who was talking, each candidate by turns would “stop terrorists,” “end global warming,” “lower gas prices,” or “stop the war.” Neither candidate can actually do any of these things. Yet these comments are exactly in line with what we hear daily out on the street, as we circulate through life.

Gone is the sense that we are making a decision, weighing options. In its stead is the building-up of our team and the eviscerating of their team.

People on Main Street, meanwhile, are left with little else to do but go along with the mob, or check out of public life.

Little wonder so many pick the latter option.

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