It’s only the middle of March, and already the first salvos for November’s elections are hitting both inbox and mailbox. They are the political equivalent of pre-emptive strikes, characterized by bold type, underlining and lots of exclamation points (!!!!!), meant to convey shock and awe to the presumably sympathetic recipient. There is a sickening sameness about them, regardless of ideology or party affiliation – a formula that starts off touting the favored candidate but quickly veers into attack mode, painting the opponent as the most extreme example of degraded ideas and vile behavior imaginable. Our candidate is all that stands between the salvation of the republic and the apocalypse. There is no effort in these missives to replace jargon with thoughtful language because they are not intended to appeal to our reason, but to our prejudices. It is a tested formula, which has made political consultants rich and filled Congress with people who speak in mind-numbing sound bites and seem to have misplaced the art of negotiation. Think not of Plato’s Republic but of Plato’s Retreat.
Not only do these campaigns lower the bar of public discourse, but they lure us into giving our team a pass: “Well, if that’s what it takes to make sure those guys lose . . . .” But each time we say that (and believe me, I do), we erode a little more of the commons – the common ground on which we can discuss diverse ideas and negotiate solutions – which is the foundation of civil society.