Thursday, May 22, 2008

Tit for Tat, All for Nought

Everyday in American politics, politicians from both parties engage in a rhetorical much ado about nothing. In another predictable round of feigned indignation and assigned motives, McCain and Obama have started a new round of grade-school debating.

These days, unendorsements matter more than endorsements. As Obama severed his ties with Jeremiah Wright, McCain in recent days repudiated Pastors John Hagee and Rod Parsley. Both are disingenuous of course: while Obama took his time to denounce his former pastor, McCain, up until he secured the Republican nomination was brazenly mending fences and courting those that he had just a few years ago called "agents of intolerance." All this bickering just to determine who is the pot and who is the kettle.

So why the flurry to reject an endorsement, to unendorse? The logic is analogous to what we know of of political ads. Everyone knows that negative ads work. What do negative endorsements have in common with negative ads? They both, when successful, suppress voter turn-out for the other candidate. They do this by engendering cynicism so that there's just no point to go out to vote.

Politicians do not want to change the system; they work it. And so a senator who once tried to reform campaign finance and another who has wrapped his campaign along the theme of change are now united in their respective efforts (if not personally, then at least via their campaign surrogates) to suppress turnout on behalf of their opponents. That after all, is the well-trodden path to the White House. And so tit for tat, all for nought.

Let it be said that "A pox on both their houses" as a response won't work. An independent candidate will still have to work the system, so it is the system that we must change. So let me propose the impossible, at least as a thought experiment. Imagine if we instituted compulsory voting in this country. All the campaign tricks used to suppress voter turnout for one's opponent immediately become irrelevant and impotent. The battle for the White House may not emerge completely into the light but at least some of the shadier tactics (think literacy tests in the past, think wedge issues for the present) will be snuffed out for good. Would that be such an unbearable incursion into our liberties?

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