In recent elections, the Republican hate word has been “liberal,” or “Massachusetts,” or “Gore.” In this election, it has increasingly been “words.” Barack Obama has been denounced again and again as a privileged wordsmith, a man of mere words who has “authored” two books (to use Sarah Palin’s verb), and done little else. The leathery extremist Phyllis Schlafly had this to say, at the Republican Convention, about Palin: “I like her because she’s a woman who’s worked with her hands, which Barack Obama never did, he was just an élitist who worked with words.” The fresher-faced extremist Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator, called Obama “just a person of words,” adding, “Words are everything to him.”
by James Wood, New Yorker, October 13, 2008
We all have this tendancy to say, “politicians are politicians,” which means, roughly, that politicians as a class will generally say anything if they think that it will get them elected. We like to think, too, that this is a non-partisan complaint pointed at Democrats as much as at Republicans. To some extent, that is true, but I think this election offers a startling contrast.
It’s true that both sides are getting ugly, but the McCain side has begun to draw on a deep well of the ugliest sorts of political rhetoric, actually stooping to accusing Obama of associating with terrorists, if not being one himself. McCain’s crowds are yelling bloody murder, literally, and the candidate is either unaware, or unwilling to challenge them.
I think Wood might have a good explanation for the deeper sources of the McCain campaign’s slide into emotionally charged, even violent rhetoric and xenophobia. (They’ve starting using Obama’s middle name at rallies again, as if to suggest that he is “foreign,” or alien in some way.) For one thing, as I heard a Pundit say the other night, it’s an old political adage: if you don’t have ideas, pick a fight.
Even more profoundly, though, McCain has had to attack the very idea of logic, of words and reasoning and debate, since the start of his national campaign. If people think their way to the election, rather react, he’s lost. That means his rhetoric has to be as dramatically Orwellian as any I have every seen, and as utterly empty. It’s all fists in the air and meaningless chants: drill baby drill!