In the 1828 campaign for the presidency, the supporters of Andrew Jackson made scurrilous accusations against President John Quincy Adams. They alleged that he arranged for liaisons while he was an ambassador in Europe. The Adams’ team responded by claiming Jackson was an adulterer. Both sides were repeating the same type of offensive language introduced into the campaign of 1800.
In the campaign of 1800, there had been heavy mudslinging. The Jefferson supporters called Adams “a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” And, the Adams supporters labeled Jefferson “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” (cf. Chrissy, “The Politics of Destruction,” PoliNation, December 1, 2011).
Political discourse has certainly improved from those days! Yet, the use of disparaging language in campaigns for political office has not disappeared. In a recent Marist poll, 56 percent of those polled said that political campaigns lacked civility. With short sound bites on paid-for ads, it is now commonplace simply to excerpt a sentence or two out of context and then use the material to smear the reputation of the opponent. A Rasmussen poll shows that at least 44 percent of Americans believe that negative campaign ads air more frequently than in the past.
According to 64 percent of the American people, the present political process has been harmed by this lack of civility. There is no arguing the point. Negative ads make the political atmosphere toxic. We are facing so many serious and fundamental issues in society. Instead of attacking each other, the candidates would do the country a favor by speaking more clearly and honestly about the issues. Do we really want more shrill discourse that polarizes us? Would it not be to the common good for our candidates to speak to us intelligently with facts and figures, with plans and projects?
To make an informed judgment in any election, we need to understand the vision that each candidate has for our future. Buzz words are not enough. We should not allow our politicians to delude us with “newspeak,” (a fictional language in Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four manipulating words to control our thinking).
We also need to hear the practical ways that they intend to make their vision a reality. A politician may possess great oratorical skills to touch the emotions of listeners and motivate them to support his or her position. Soaring statements and bright promises can excite enthusiasm. But, only reasoned discourse can convince us of a plan to make our country better. We need to hear the candidates tell us how they understand basic human values such as life and liberty. The candidates’ values play no small part in the way they wish to lead our country.
Many people depend on the media for their information. But, there is a noticeable bias in the way that news is reported or, for that matter, at times ignored. We need correct, factual, unbiased information to make good judgments. We simply cannot ingest all that the media say if the media choose to report the news only to advance their own agenda. We have the responsibility to know the issues and the social consequences for embracing and implementing certain choices.
Our society today is confronting many serious issues that will shape our future. We have the moral responsibility as citizens to take the upcoming presidential election seriously, to know the issues and to vote according to a well-informed conscience. Our bad choices will only contribute to a decline in our prosperity and limit our ability to help other nations in the cause of justice and peace. Our good choices have the possibility of making America a model of democracy.
Since 1972, just about half of all voters have been turning out for presidential elections. Catholics are urged not to neglect their duty to vote. It is an essential way to participate in promoting the common good. As Catholics, we have inherited a rich tradition of teaching and action on the very issues that we are so painfully facing in our culture. We should not abandon our Catholic heritage when we exercise our roles as citizens. As one of our recent presidents once said, we can help make America, that “shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.”