My DVR's ability to zip past political commercials is the only thing standing between the television and a big rock.
Living in a swing state in an era of poisonous politics means never having to say to yourself, "Gee, I wonder how the guy running for president will destroy the country today?" Just turn on the TV and the answer appears in neatly packaged 30-second spots. Apparently the attack ad accusing President Barack Obama of giving welfare recipients a free ride is doing so well it has been upped to airing once a nanosecond, almost as frequently as Mitt Romney has been seen warbling an off-key America the Beautiful.
No matter one's political leanings, it is easy to become cynical. Yes, Obama's stance on welfare is relevant, but not outright lying about it. And yes, Romney's overseas tax shelters are fair game, but not the use of embarrassing lounge lizard video.
We are in another presidential election cycle where persuading the electorate using facts, evidence and reasoning is lost to emotional manipulation and lies.
You have to wonder if that was always the case. I got my answer on a recent trip to southern Vermont where I enjoyed a dramatic reading of The Rivalry, a 1959 Norman Corwin play based on the debates of Abraham Lincoln and Sen. Stephen Douglas during their Senate contest of 1858. It was performed at the Dorset Theatre Festival as part of a community conversation on civil discourse.
Lincoln was deeply opposed to Douglas' Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the law that allowed new territories to elect to become slave-holding. This locus launched their road-show debates, a seven-town, 21-hour spectacle that addressed a national disagreement so deep and divisive it could only be decided by a civil war. Even with emotions so high, the political adversaries focused on the issues and persuaded through rational discourse.
Could some reasonable facsimile of these debates happen today? That question was put to Madeleine Kunin, Vermont's first female governor, who took the part of Douglas' wife, Adele. Though generally pessimistic, Kunin thought it possible with "different rules."
She's right about new rules. We need a set for civil discourse. Not new laws — that would violate the First Amendment — but a set of culturally enforced standards. I believe it could happen even with America's take-no-prisoners politics. Think about war, the most horrendous acts human beings do to one another. Yet, the civilized nations of the world have adopted the Geneva Conventions to regularize wartime conduct. If we can agree on rules for war, we should be able to do the same for political campaigns.
Here are mine:
Rule One: Identify yourself. Reputation is a powerful civilizing force, while anonymity exerts the opposite push. The role of anonymous money for vicious political attack ads coarsens the debate. The people giving would never affix their names to what's being said. Stop the cowardice and lower the temperature.
Rule Two: Be factually accurate. It's the most fundamental element in honest debate, according to Roy Maynard, editorial page editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph in Texas and head of Civilitas, a civil discourse project of the Association of Opinion Journalists (of which I'm a member).
Media organizations like the Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact are providing an essential service by fact-checking candidate statements. This labor-intensive effort is supposed to bring light to issues and chide campaigns into being more truthful. But Romney's campaign publicly asserts it will ignore fact-checking verdicts if it sees political gains. Ending the lies will allow for real policy debates.
Rule Three: Stop the hypocrisy. Don't accuse your opponent of doing evil if he's embracing your own policies. Obamacare and Romneycare, for instance, are essentially the same approach to health care reform. Admitting the obvious leads to voter clarity.
Only voters can hold politicians to a new set of normative values that would make for cleaner campaigns and a stronger democracy. Otherwise, our choice is to gear up those DVRs and tune the clatter out.