“Why do the weak men have all the poetry?” One of Thomas Keneally’s characters inquired during his play, Transport, at the Irish Arts Center recently.
William Butler Yeats might answer, “(because) the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Both writers could be referring to the fact that in modern politics sloganeering has replaced honest and substantive discussion.
Slogans are hardly new; it’s a rare social, religious or political movement that hasn’t employed a humdinger to rally the troops. But what might have merely echoed across a barricade in times past can now virally infect the culture within moments.
My first memory of an election turned on its ear by a catchphrase was “Where’s The Beef?” back in 1984 when Walter Mondale destroyed Gary Hart by posing this inanity. It mattered little that Hart had many good ideas and would have proved a better candidate against Ronald Reagan.
Come to think of it that’s when “No New Taxes” hit the jackpot. Mondale stated that if elected he’d be forced to raise taxes in order to balance the budget.
Honesty, as every modern politician knows, does not pay. Mondale was trounced that November while Reagan stuck by his slogan and continued to amass huge deficits.
And now we have a new catch-cry: “No More Bailouts.”
Of course, there will be bailouts – what are you going to do should credit freeze again and the economic system starts tumbling into the Hudson? The only question is – who’ll pay for the bloody things?
Instead of shaving profits from the major banks and creating a reserve of 50 billion dollars as proposed, our legislators chose to delete that safety net from the Financial-Regulation Bill. After all, who wants their opponent yelling, “you’re in favor of bailouts” come November’s election?
It’s not so much that we disagree on how the country should be run, it’s that we can’t sit down and hammer out a consensus. Take the presidency of George W. Bush.
Elected on a platform of compassionate conservatism, he inherited a solid surplus that would have continued to increase as things stood.
However, in his generosity, he gave each of us a tax rebate thereby effectively torpedoing the surplus. His goal, of course, was to “starve government,” but I don’t remember any kind of substantive debate on the matter, and given the current fiscal debacle, this was an appallingly shortsighted decision.
Sloganeering is eating away at our democracy. One might as well watch The Simpsons as a political debate – at least Homer occasionally voices some homespun wisdom. Meanwhile, most politician spout a series of clichés prepared by their handlers, designed only to prevent the loss of votes.
Take the issue of the role of government in a democratic society. Are you kidding me? What government? Everyone is running against Washington – even the Nationals’ shortstop. Yet we all look to the Feds in a crisis – it’s just that we refuse to define what we wish government to do and – more importantly - how to pay for it.
Why? Well, participatory democracy is often painful and difficult – far easier mouth a few slogans and blame someone else.
At least, “Drill, Baby, Drill” is out the window for the foreseeable future in light of the BP disaster down in Louisiana; but isn’t it really time we had a full-bore discussion on energy. With the world economy expanding again, does anyone seriously doubt that a gallon of gas won’t hit $5 in the coming years?
Things were just hunky-dory as long as we were the only gas-guzzlers but now China and India want in. I know it’s downright heresy – and a nightmare to many - but wouldn’t it be better to promote conservation now by slapping a tax on gas that would concurrently reduce the deficit?
Or should we just wait for the oil companies to up the price as soon as demand rises. Come to think of it, oil itself will run out in thirty or so years, shouldn’t we have shifted to Plan B yesterday?
We blew the chance of a lifetime on Sept. 11, 2001 when we were all ready to sacrifice for the common good. It won’t be as easy now. We’re fatigued from fighting two wars, betrayed by political, financial and religious leaders, drowning in an ocean of cultural banality while new and vacuous slogans divert us from substantive action.
It’s time we looked beyond the smoke and mirrors. It’s time we talked to each other again.