Cory Booker’s remarkable ascent will continue in spite of his recent gaffe, but his remark about attack ads was just more “outsider politics” as usual.
When Cory Booker went on “Meet the Press” and announced that he found attack ads to be nauseating regardless of the party distributing them, he ran afoul of the well-financed Obama 2012 machine. He apologized for these remarks, noting that he “stood firmly with the President” and that “Obama’s political team has been good to me for years,” but also lashed out against his most vocal critics on Twitter by tweeting “Sorry I make u sick” at them (quick aside: am I the only person who finds it obnoxious when a “serious” public figure drops a “u” or a “ur” when using that service?). Given our notoriously short attention spans, Booker’s carefully-cultivated brand–Stanford football player, Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law School grad, incorruptible man of the people–will suffer no long-term damage and, à la John McCain years after the Keating Five scandal, he may eventually emerge on the national scene at the helm of his own Straight Talk Express.
Good for him, I say. He’s paid his dues and earned his progressive bona fides. But, glowing CV aside, Booker’s tentative attempt to bridge the partisan divide is nothing new. Nor is it especially helpful in terms of winning primaries or governing the country. There is a certain value to the “career politician,” the individual who can stay on message, mobilize the base, and stifle dissent.
It’s a regrettable yet unalterable fact of life that the US political system offers voters only two realistic choices in most major elections. There have been countless pieces written denouncing the failings of the Democratic and Republican parties: their Wall Street leanings, their phony populism, their essential similarities (not to mention the “gridlock,” “pork,” and other vaguely-understood phenomena that occur due to their incessant jockeying for position). Nevertheless, these two, large dysfunctional groupings are preferable to the alternative; namely, “nonpartisan” elections where voters, lacking a useful heuristic for casting their ballot, demonstrate appallingly low levels of interest and participation.
Nevertheless, the romantic notion of a “nonpartisan” contest, where a candidate would rise or fall based on his glowing CV and debate club credentials, holds considerable appeal for the Cory Bookers, circa-2008 Barack Obamas, and Oliver Batemans of the world. It is likely that such an individual would also have sympathized with the early 20th century efforts to save urban voters from bossocracy–a move that, far from increasing voter participation, actually diminished it, as citizens who lacked an immediate pecuniary or social welfare-related motive to cast their ballots began to stay away from the polls.
In a perfect world, there would be no need for attack ads of the sort that Booker bemoaned. However, the world we inhabit is anything but perfect, as a short overview such as this one makes clear:
Seventy percent of Americans believe in the existence of angels. Fifty percent believe that the earth has been visited by UFOs; in another poll, 70 percent believed that the U.S. government is covering up the presence of space aliens on earth. Forty percent did not know whom the U.S. fought in World War II. Forty percent could not locate Japan on a world map. Fifteen percent could not locate the United States on a world map. Sixty percent of Americans have not read a book since leaving school. Only 6 percent now read even one book a year. According to a very familiar statistic that nonetheless cannot be repeated too often, the average American’s day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, 30 seconds attending a play or concert, 25 seconds making or viewing art, and four hours watching television.
That bit, in which George Scialabba corrals the most distressing “factlets” about American stupidity, is part of a longer essay, the bulk of which is consumed with evaluating the delightful-albeit-dilettantish doomsaying of Morris Berman. Berman and other very learned types are fond of complaining about how everything is spinning out of control, although such discussions always seem to fail to account for the fact that there have been, at least in certain corners of our benighted land, significant improvements in living standards.
Forgive me for that brief digression (or stop reading, if you’ve got concerns over the “tl;dr” nature of the piece and a busy fantasy baseball schedule to keep). What I intended to do by re-presenting Scialabba’s litany of woes was to demonstrate how “uninformed” (in one particular sense of that term) the electorate happens to be. This is, of course, not a problem confined to believers in angels and aliens; I spent twelve years as a university student but remain generally unaware of the issues at stake in most state and municipal elections. I simply don’t have the time to follow along with this stuff–and neither, I imagine, do most other Americans. We need shortcuts, and attack advertisements–political advertisements of all sorts, really–are one way to create these.
Even if the arguments are simple to the point of inanity (“Obama’s true loyalties rest with African-American revolutionaries,” “Romney is a callous profiteer”), they do appear to capture the essence of each coalition in extremely broad and incredibly rough strokes. The Democratic Party favors slightly higher rates of taxation and has a larger base of support among minority groups; the Republican Party favors slightly lower rates of taxation and directs the bulk of its campaigning efforts at white voters. In the case of the Reverend Wright backlash from the ’08 campaign, the GOP sought to remind voters that Obama, himself of biracial origins, had ties to a supposedly “radical” minority leader. Now, with the criticism of Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, the Democrats hope to underscore their opponent’s association with the sort of “corporate raiders” who would benefit most from Republican-sponsored tax relief.
According to a recent survey by Arizona State professors Kim Fridkin and Patrick Kenney, these advertisements do the job: exposure to a steady stream of uncivil but relevant attacks on a candidate will eventually cause the average voter to evaluate that candidate more harshly. Even though 82% of respondents to their survey agreed with the statement that “some negative advertisements are so nasty I stop paying attention,” only one population group–highly partisan, young, and politically unsophisticated conservative males–appeared resistant to their effects.
When incumbent Ronald Reagan battled Democratic challenger Walter Mondale in 1984, voters with college and advanced degrees comprised 35.3 percent of the electorate. Today that number has declined to 27.9 percent, and it is likely to keep falling as the federal government tightens student lending regulations. The college degree is itself a heuristic: having one is no guarantee of intelligence, and lacking one is no indication of ignorance. Nevertheless, it seems that elites–from which the “goo-goo” class has usually been drawn–are declining in proportional terms.
Should he pursue higher office, Booker will undoubtedly receive the support of many in that cluster. He’ll promise to clean up whatever part of the government he’s hoping to join, outlining his reform program in hopeful speeches and tightly-constructed op-eds. Then he’ll win– deservedly so, given how hard he’s worked–and proceed to surround himself with a bunch of Wall Street types and party insiders. But unlike loyal party soldiers such as Barney Frank and Mitch McConnell (and even the extraordinarily corruptible Sharpe James, whom he replaced as Mayor of Newark), who have always remained on-message and in attack mode, he’ll reach the top in a most disingenuous way.
Should he deign to run for reelection to that hypothetical post, attack ads will likely be run on his behalf by the national party. In that scenario, the decision to use them will come down to a simple political calculation: they’re more effective against challengers.