Well, we’re all glad that’s over! And I’m allowing myself one quick moment to say this: it’s good to be in America, Bexar County, San Antonio, and Congressional District 35 this morning. But also, wow, Facebook “Friends.” Just because it’s instantly broadcast to all 1,500 of your “friends” doesn’t mean you should say it.
Now, on to reflecting.
My creative writing professor was one of the most quotable human beings ever to shout flamboyant aphorisms at trembling undergrads. As a Vietnam vet, a Fulbright Scholar, and a Baptist preacher, his reservoir of such ran deep and murky. One maxim in particular is forever branded into the mind of any student who survived his writing workshops: Satan wants you stupid. *shouted in a gravelly voice with an Expo marker hurled at the wall somewhere near a college student’s head*
His point is that ignorant people do damage rather than good.
Another withering wit would agree with him. Aaron Sorkin is on a one man campaign for a more intelligent America. Say what you want about his monochrome world of high-performing wise-asses (see The Social Network’s Jesse Eisenberg telling opposing counsel, “You have exactly half of my attention…”), the man is a crusader. Sorkin’s screenplays include A Few Good Men, The American President, and The Social Network. For television he wrote The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sports Night, and now has a new series out on HBO called The Newsroom which just wrapped up its inaugural season.
Central to the plot of The Newsroom are classic Sorkinian protagonists Will McAvoy and Makenzie McHale. He is a moderate Republican who wakes up to smell the extremism in his own party. She is an bleeding-heart liberal who would die on her principals if anyone in the tough-skinned-but-tender-hearted news production room would let her. And of course, they have a romantic history, yielding enough painfully public workplace conduct infractions to make someone ask, “Where the hell is HR in this world?”
So yeah, it has its flaws.
But it, like Sorkin’s The West Wing, Charlie Wilson’s War, and even Studio 60, subscribes to a common belief: there are people in America who want to know the truth, and they are capable of taking a joke. There are citizens who want more than sensationalism and demagoguery, but who are willing and able to laugh at themselves. There are people willing to think before they throw stones.
In an election year, sometimes I doubt that. With each election we hear that this is the nastiest campaign season we’ve ever seen. That the candidates are throwing the lowest blows yet. That there’s more money going into manipulative television ads than ever before. And then there’s the steady roll of Facebook feed. It’s enough to make you want to ask, “Where the hell is HR in this world?”
So what are the things that made America stupider during this election year?
The Straight Ticket: Blind Partisanship
Maury Maverick was a columnist for the Express News for 23 years until 1993. A member of the Texas Legislature during the Red Scare of the 1950’s, Maverick was the kind of legislator who was trying to save civil society from a medieval style witch hunt that would have jeopardized the academic integrity of the University of Texas and the peace and security of every private citizen in our state.
Maverick drew some fire, and I can understand why. He’s pretty crusty. But as I’ve been reading through an anthology of his columns he sings the praises of brave public servants on both sides of the aisles. His opinions are founded in ideals, yes, but his arguments are built with logic. What if we subjected political stump campaigning to rigorous logical analysis? What if cohesive statements, not soundbites/slip-ups/memes ruled the airwaves and internet?
I think the result would be that we would vote a mixed ballot, because there are great and not-so-great candidates on both sides. And the different levels and branches of government might not all benefit from the same political approach. And if our elected officials felt free to defy their party bosses, maybe we wouldn’t have so much gridlock during non-election years.
Campaign Speeches: Promises that don’t even make sense
When I was in sixth grade I ran for class president in a race that really boiled down to me and one other kid. Our campaign speeches were broadcast over the school close-circuit television system. I promised to be fair and try to faithfully convey the desires of the entire student body to the teachers on issues of homework, school functions, and tests. My opponent promised to get a soda machine installed in the cafeteria. I asked a the principal if this was a realistic promise and she said, “no way.” But he still won. Guess what, still to this day there is no soda machine in that cafeteria.
I learned something during the 6th grade election. Campaigns are credit cards with no limit. You can charge and charge, but you’ll never pay them off.
But before we crucify our elected officials for not delivering, remember this: we would never elect the guy who made realistic promises. We’re the ones who keep demanding that our “tough questions” be answered in a campaign slogan. How many documents on economic policy did you read this campaign season?
Remember, it was the villain, not the hero of Sorkin’s A Few Good Men that said, “You can’t handle the truth.”
The Two-Party System: because there are exactly two kinds of people in this country?
I went to vote in the primary earlier this year, at the elementary school down the street from my house. As I approached the sign-in table, the cranky volunteer yelled out, while I was still at least 20 feet from the the table, “Republican or Democrat?” I stammered, stopped walking, but then decided not to run away with what was left of my independent sensibilities, and just did what I had come to do.
I know that there are third party candidates. I know that there are even some independents in Congress. But when you walk up to vote in a primary, you get two choices. Moderates and political amalgams weren’t viable (mostly) in 2012. Log-Cabin Republicans and Democrats for Life are fringe elements of their party at best. A Latino Catholic has to choose between immigration and pro-life causes. A gay business owner has to choose between marriage equality and corporate tax breaks. The pressure to pick a team and drink their kool-aide is trickling down to the American people, and making public discourse a harrowing endeavor. Just try reading the comments on a news blog sometime.
The two-party system necessitates us vs. them thinking. Having only one aisle makes it too easy to point across it and say, “You’re what’s wrong with America!”
But this could change if we’d stop thinking on the back foot and start striving to understand why the intelligent people hold the opinions that they do. If we entered into discussion and widened the playing field. If we conceded a point every now and then and didn’t view changing our mind as political treason.
I think it’s dangerous to create a system wherein our leaders have to defy logic to get elected. I think it’s more dangerous that they have to maintain a 100% certainty that they and their party are correct, in spite of any evidence to the contrary. I think it’s dangerous to be stupid.