I did very few things in my political work over the years that I’m ashamed of, but one case sticks out. I was simply helping a client try to win a campaign — and I made $10,000 doing it — but it was just plain wrong. It’s done all the time, though, and most people don’t realize it’s wrong.
I’m not going to mention names because I feel as though that would be unfair to people who paid me to work for them, but the names don’t matter. I was doing some last-minute work for a state gubernatorial campaign. My candidate was the incumbent, but he was weak and expected to lose. Those around the campaign were desperate for ideas and willing to throw money at the problem.
Some in the campaign leadership were obsessed with tying the opponent to a bunch of ’60s radicals. They had very shaky grounds for doing so, but the facts didn’t seem to matter. I produced a direct mail piece that went to hundreds of thousands of people that was accurate insofar as the facts it stated, but was dishonest in the implications it made. I’m ashamed of it, but that didn’t stop me from cashing the check.
The mailer used pictures of radical left-wing figures from the ’60s. More accurately stated, it included people who conservatives would see as those radicals. For instance, it included a picture of Jane Fonda in North Vietnam when she did made the trip that led to her being labeled Hanoi Jane. It was a cast of characters designed to make conservatives angry — and to link their anger at that to the guy we were trying to beat.
It was a case of stating the facts while telling a lie. We were appealing to anger that people had about other people who they misunderstood. In systems where you have no choice other than to gain the support of a majority, you sometimes have no pragmatic choice other than to shock and anger people in order to manipulate them to vote the way you want them to, but all it does is win an immediate battle. It doesn’t help in the long term.
I thought about that mailer again last weekend when I saw controversy involving U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of California. She’s one of those lightning rods that conservatives love to hate, and it’s hard to blame them. She comes across as arrogant, condescending, stupid and mean-spirited to me. She said this last week at a public meeting in California:
“This is a tough game. You can’t be intimidated. You can’t be frightened. And as far as I’m concerned — the tea party can go straight to hell.”
Conservatives don’t understand her anger, but it’s equally clear that she doesn’t understand their anger, either. Sadly, each side only sees things from its own point of view. It doesn’t help when someone such as conservative radio talk show host Michael Savage says that “liberalism is a mental disorder.” There’s no conversation. There’s no attempt to understand. There’s only anger and bitterness and personal animosity. It wins elections, but it divides a country and makes it angrier — especially when media is there to amplify the anger to become public entertainment.
Things don’t have to be this way, but they’re going to continue to be this way as long as we have the coercive state. The “winner take all” system requires that anyone who wants to do anything has to work up an angry mob of 51 percent. Some pundits want to see it as an aberration, but it’s actually a feature of the system.
We don’t all hate each other over what restaurants we love and we don’t typically have screaming matches over which groceries to buy. So why do we do it over which health care to buy? Or which weapons to build and buy? Or which people to hand out money to in various other parts of life?
It’s simple. We each make a choice for ourselves when it comes to restaurants and groceries. We respect the idea that other people want something different from what we want. It wouldn’t occur to the vast majority of us to demand laws requiring everyone to eat the same foods. But when it comes to what governments buy, it’s a one-size-fits-all solution. If our group doesn’t win the right to force its view on everybody, we don’t get what we want. People with different views feel the same way.
As long as we have a coercive state requiring everyone to be the same — in increasingly large parts of life — we’re going to continue having angrier and angrier people. We’re not going to defuse this ticking time bomb until we understand that we all want different things. We need to allow others to make their own choices, even when we disagree with them.
I know this isn’t a popular view. I could make far more people happy by railing against the people some political group disagrees with. I know how to push political buttons to make people angry. It would certainly get more readers, because people share things that say what they already agree with. I could do that, but I won’t.
Maybe I don’t have the stomach for it. And maybe I’ve seen that it’s not consistent with my personal and spiritual values. And maybe it’s because I now see a better way — a way that can work for everyone.