The Campaign Trail: Where You Go To Say Dumb Things

Could there be a stupider foreign ‘policy’ decision than the one to strike Iran, ostensibly to disrupt its nuclear weapons program? (If the strike ‘succeeds’ it will: encourage Iran to build a nuclear weapon for, as its rulers are likely to notice, only nations with actual nuclear weapons don’t get attacked by the US; consolidate ‘mullah power’; unite the Iranians, current radicals and mullahs alike, against the US; destabilize the region even more as new, possibly more radical alliances than the current Hamas-Hizbollah ones are formed.)

That such a move is even being considered, is being lightly tossed around, by supposedly responsible statesmen, should be cause for some consternation. But viewed from another perspective, the casual trafficking in this threat is also unsurprising when we notice the venue of its proclamation: the election and campaign trail. Where else would something this stupid be said? The invocation of armed power as a solution, indeed, the only viable one, for dealing with a foreign policy problem that requires instead finesse, patience, and a great deal of nuanced, region-specific, historically and culturally sensitive knowledge is a reminder, once again, of how utterly divorced from reality the campaign season can make politicians. And it raises again the question, always worth keeping handy, of the pernicious effect on politics and democracy that the business of elections, electioneering and campaigning can have.

It is now April, the fourth month of the year, and Election Day is almost exactly twenty-eight weeks away. Till then, election-related material will blanket the air waves, newsprint, and the various physical media that bring us the Internet. There will be many more campaign gaffes and ‘gotcha’ moments (Etch-a-Sketch will be reincarnated in many forms; Obama will, in all probability, be asked to backpedal on ‘race issues’; and so on); and more often than not, candidates desperate to rouse the faithful will reach deep into the bag of Dumb Things and pull out one grand exhibit after another. (As it would only be honest to note my political biases, I should point out that I expect more Dumb Things to be said by the Republican candidate than by Obama; the latter seems less relatively inclined to shoot from the hip in these matters.) But none of these differences between candidates will obscure the central issue that the extended election season and the length of the campaign trail are increasingly conducive of the production of a coarsened discourse combined with the  technological efficiency, scope and reach of the modern election’s media apparatus. Sure, there is ‘airing of the issues’, but there is also time and space enough to air half-baked thoughts and pander relentlessly.

A persistent confusion about democracy arises in assigning elections disproportionate importance over and above the creation, maintenance and sustenance of the rest of its crucial economic and political infrastructure; the extended election season with the ample opportunities it provides for Quality Not Quantity, for the production of Things Better Left Unsaid, is the worst, most dispiriting instance of this misplaced priority. Here, the election, supposed centerpiece of democracy, seems more like a malign interruption, a gigantic roadblock to quality political discourse, which, I have been assured, is a rather crucial part of a dynamic polity.

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