It’s the week after the primary elections, and most West Virginians are relieved to see a hiatus of political ads. While it probably was a boon to media businesses, viciousness seems to grow with each election. It now appears to be the new normal in American politics.
Some of us recall past elections where candidates actually enumerated reasons why we should elect them. Last week Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) was in Huntington discussing some of his specific goals for West Virginia. It was how many of us remember politicians when they spent more time highlighting their own plans and accomplishments than dredging up “dirt” on their opponents.
While political campaigns have always used negatives regarding their opponents, personal and family life used to be out of bounds. Many believe that President Franklin D. Roosevelt could not have been elected four times if the public knew the extent of his paralysis from polio. Others suggest that wholehearted attacks on candidates’ personal relationships began in 1987 when Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart denied that he was having an affair and Miami Herald reporters “outed” him.
The 2016 presidential election has made many Americans ready to accept political crassness and vulgarities as never before. Some blame this on the multitude of Republican candidates, the Clinton/Sanders rift or Russian Facebook posts. Others believe that many people enjoy the mean-spirited name calling President Trump injected into the race, while some say that as long as a candidate espouses his or her goals, then the candidate’s behavior is irrelevant. Secretary Clinton’s “despicable” comment backfired because many folks felt they were being put down. Yet, when President Trump marginalized a disabled person and Sen. John McCain’s POW experience, his supporters had no problem with it.
Politics rewards winners with power and money; it has always included cunning, deceit and offensiveness. In the past, these behaviors were subtler with a faade of politeness. Today, the gloves are off; in-your-face dirt, scandal, lies and more are viewed as an integral part of a political campaign.
Some believe that we Americans cared more about morals in the past, but it appears that candidates were more willing and able to hide political and personal behaviors to which the public might object. We still adored JFK, even after his many indiscretions were revealed.
West Virginia’s recent primary reinforced the new openness of American political viciousness. The Republican senatorial candidates’ ads presented the others as totally undesirable, perhaps “despicable.” While I have never been a fan of Mr. Blankenship and wrote two very negative columns about him in 2006, I thought his early ads weren’t overly offensive. But after negative PAC ads attributed to Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appeared, Blankenship used the new viciousness model, calling McConnell “cocaine Mitch” and referring to McConnell’s “China Family” because McConnell’s wife was born in Taiwan and her family’s shipping business allegations.
It is one thing to have candidates attack and try to destroy one another during a campaign, but once it is over, we used to expect civility and even cooperation. But that’s not what’s happening in the White House, Congress or even family dinner tables. It seems that unlimited viciousness in American politics is the new normal.