Honesty in politics is unwelcome

April 14, 2008

culture / politics

In this election, I’ve observed that Americans don’t like honesty in politics. I feel pretty confident that we like it more than we did four years ago, but we still don’t like it. Especially if it challenges our feeling of optimism, or worse our global supremacy.

I’m often reminded of the episode of Family Guy where Lois runs for Mayor. She tries to be honest with the people, talking about issues and problems the city is facing, and no one cares what she has to say. Then, she simplifies. Every time someone asks a question, the answer is “911.” Or something to do with terrorism, or Jesus.

I feel like this business over Obama’s comments about some blue-collar voters is like that. From Obama:

“It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

From Hillary:

“I think it’s very critical that the Democrats really focus in on this and make it clear that we are not (elitist). We are going to stand up and fight for all Americans.”

Obama’s trying to deal with a real issue. Hillary realizes that Americans don’t like to deal with that kind of issue, so she is trying to bring things back to easy sound bites that won’t offend anyone, but don’t really say anything either. All politicians use those sound bites, including Obama. But he has consistently tried to get past them.

The problem with trying to get past them will be that they are a dangerous test of the openness of Americans. We’re not known for being open, especially to criticism. I’m interested to see if people will realize what he’s trying to say and offer on complex issues like this, or if they will just brand him as elitist and give up (whether it happens in the primary, or in the general election).

On a side note, Hillary referred to John Kerry’s 2004 campaign as elitist. I think this is the way some people perceived it, but I don’t think that’s the reason he lost. I think he lost because he didn’t really have a strong message. He changed a lot. His consistent message was that he wasn’t Bush (it’s significant that without any other strong message, he still got close to 50% of the country to vote for him). In lacking that strong message, he fell victim to a trap that has bothered evangelicals in recent years: we are known more (or only) for what we are against, and no one knows what we are for.