Politics Out of Control: Somebody Please Say ‘Amen’

Did anyone notice the color of the carpet on the debate stage?  It was an almost blinding shade of bright red? Unusual color to see anyplace but on a fire truck. Don’t believe I’ve ever seen a carpet of that color before.

The logical explanation is that the debate planners didn’t want you to see the blood on the floor.

Yes, I recused myself from criticizing the debate performance of President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney. But I have to say I’m appalled by the state of American political discourse in general. Maybe we should skip the debates and select the next president by mixed martial arts in a cage. Or if that’s over the top, maybe an old-fashioned fist fight with civilized rules and a referee.

I think three developments have turned American politics into an angry brawl.

First, economic dislocation puts any society under great stress. And believe me, what we’re going through is NOT a recession or depression.

It’s CHANGE, major restructuring of the world economy. Many throughout the world see a rising standard of living. But many more are dispossessed of their natural resources and exploited for their labor. All the while, large populations remain hopelessly impoverished and sometimes starving.

In the U.S. and many European countries, economic change is experienced as dislocation. We’re not starving, but a comfortable status quo has been rudely shaken. Many people are caught in a relentless tide of change, washed up on a less desirable part of the beach. Those who remain on higher, drier ground, loudly proclaim that the flogging austerity will continue until morale profitability and growth improve.

Second, an ineffable quality of American life has been debased in recent decades. Standards and expectations of honor, education, manners, respect, restraint, propriety have been slowly but steadily eroded. Crude, rude and abusive language and behavior are tolerated and even encouraged. Random violence becomes commonplace.

You can’t blame it all on any one thing. Not reality television, not music lyrics, not pornography, not violent computer games, not drugs, not even the waning influence of family and community. But put it all together, and the cumulative effect is palpable.

Third, unlimited millions can now be spent on virulent attack ads. Anyone who’s rich enough can overwhelm the free speech of ordinary citizens and essentially buy election success.

In view of economic dislocation and social decay, is it any surprise that American politics has turned mean, angry, vengeful, destructive.

I wonder if we shouldn’t junk the sordid modern system of presidential debates, talk radio, cable TV commentators, and unlimited political spending.

Don’t say it’s not possible. Several models of discourse are appealing.

  • We used to have a blend of reasoned editorial-page writing; negotiation by knowledgeable leaders in smoke-filled rooms; and real political conventions that made real decisions about platforms and candidates in public. The public part, at least, was done in a spirit of wildly optimistic, musical, and patriotic celebration. Call me nostalgic. That quaint American system had its shortcomings, but it worked.
  • The British Parliament has a tradition of sometimes rowdy but usually civilized debate. Back-benchers are free to join in with jeers or cheers, but reasonable decorum is maintained. The Parliamentary tradition of majority rule, often requiring a coalition of parties and concessions all around, continues to work, while majority-rule in the U.S. Senate has failed. Perhaps the British concept of the “loyal opposition” would help in the U.S. Senate.
  • Also appealing is the tradition in many Christian churches in America, especially in the South, of high-minded, impassioned oratory based on widely held fundamental values. It’s positive, uplifting, and inclusive. Members of the congregation often feel inspired to encourage the preacher with cries of “Tell it!” “Yes!” and “Amen, Brother!” The same rhetorical style has been used to positive effect in a number of social reform movements in the public sphere. It should be used more often.

Somebody please say Amen.

— John Hayden

6 thoughts on “Politics Out of Control: Somebody Please Say ‘Amen’

  1. hmmm, your reference to smoke-filled rooms made me realize how much the pace and the players have changed. Lean and healthy young thugs are moving things along quickly these days in an atmosphere of fear because what one says can spread around the world in a few moments.


    • Lean young thugs! Thank you for a wonderful observation. Made me recall that in some of our most desperate hours, the free world was led by two sick, old men, Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

      Both men, of course, were products of the rough-and-tumble politics of their own time, which was corrupt in many ways.

      Back-room wheeling & dealing by powerful bosses and kingmakers was effective because the men smoking the cigars possessed experience, wisdom and judgment, and had the power to deliver on their promises. Those in the back rooms were not selected based on their good looks.

      Women were largely excluded, but perhaps not as completely as we might think. Women of genius, like Eleanor Roosevelt, made themselves heard. Their influence, like that of the male bosses, may have been effective because they wheeled & dealed with some confidentiality, rather than constant TV exposure.

      The poor and workers were undoubtedly manipulated by the bosses, but at least the needs of the masses were partially addressed. I’m not advocating a return to a system that excludes women and public scrutiny, but perhaps we can learn something from it.

      As for communication, surely Roosevelt’s “Fireside Talks,” and the soaring, motivational rhetoric of both men seem more civilized and more effective than what we see on television now.


  2. “The public part, at least, was done in a spirit of wildly optimistic, musical, and patriotic celebration.” (John Hayden)


    I remember my aunt dressing up with her brightly striped clothes and a great, daring hat during elections. What an exciting time it was. My dad would take me to the office where she volunteered. I loved the bright colors, the many hats, whistles and I think there was candy too!

    I passed by a campaign office the other day (I’ll let you guess the party). Peering in the window, I saw an expensive wood-framed photo of the candidate showing his pearly whites. There was a desk with a fancy vase on it, and that was it. No hats or boxes of whistles. No posters or colorful banners. It was cold and corporate.

    Call me nostalgic too. I enjoyed your post John. Your voice is passionate, so don’t be quiet for too long!


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