The Politics of Meanness

WITH the primary season behind us, the fall campaigns will heat up quickly, in more ways than one. A recent Times-Mirror poll found an American electorate that is ``angry, self-absorbed, and politically unanchored.'' Why this is so is a question that badly needs attention. One thing is certain: Playing to voter anger and fear will not help.

Yet this is how many races are being managed. ``Anti'' is in. Highly personalized ``attack campaigns'' are now the style. Typical, and typically unfair, is a TV ad that uses a video trick called ``morphing'' to dissolve the face of a candidate into the face of President Clinton.

The radio talk shows of G. Gordon Liddy and Rush Limbaugh, which often thrive on the sneer behind the smile, inform political discourse. It is ironic to find politicians who call for less cynicism and more trust gaining so much leverage from the political meanness that feeds cynicism and mistrust.

Politics has always been a gloves-off affair, particularly in the home stretch, and there is a place for making a case in a hard, serious manner. But there is something a little dangerous about voters expecting vitriol as a normal part of their participation in American democracy. Giving over to hate or contempt is not the preferred way to make intelligent independent judgments. Nor is it a particularly healthy overall trend in American life and the body politic. The cheap and dirty humor, and the hate, are not good for us.

Mr. Clinton is the main target. Even he acknowledges it, and rightly, since he is partly to blame. But some of the attacks on him and his wife and family are as ugly as anything we have seen. As author Garry Wills notes, ``There is something oddly pure, somehow free from ideas, about the frenzy of dislike'' for Clinton. Yet to ratchet up the level of meanness to wound Clinton and derail needed legislation such as the crime bill is truly self-defeating and cynical. The presidency is one part of a ``separated system'' of American governance; Congress can't blame Clinton for all its shortcomings.

The economy is improving, the deficit is down, and the unemployment rate is down. Yet people feel angry. We suspect the feeling is due to larger causes such as uncertainty at the end of the cold war, stress on the family, crime and violence, and an assault on meaning and faith. The rhetoric of meanness merely exploits that anger. It leaves a great deal of work undone, and a residue of incivility.

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