Political Schisms Of The Partisan Kind
It’s all over except for the shouting, which, given the whole polarized tenor of the race so far, will no doubt be loud and nonstop. I pray that the outcome of this presidential election does not become a Gore-Bush redux, with fighting going on for months. With the mess of Sandy clean-up in the mix, there will no doubt be all sorts of issues about counting the emailed, faxed, scanned, and snail-mailed ballots of storm evacuees or people whose polling places were swept away.
Do you remember that iconic photo of the official Floridian chad examiner viewing the marks on a paper ballot through a magnifying glass, with his blown-up eye looking like an enormous beetle? This year, the bug-eyed (and ear-and-brain-clogged) ones are swing state voters, but especially the citizens of Ohio, who have had to endure a crazy-making barrage of attack ads. If you figure out what the candidates actually spent per voter in Ohio, you probably could have hired two brawny aides to carry each Ohioan around all day in a sedan chair for three months.
The volume was unprecedented, both in the billions spent on airtime, and in the fact that the TV spots were almost universally lowdown and negative, meant to disparage a rival, rather than set any soaring agenda for candidates.
Here’s what was different this year: I can’t think of a single ad that might have moved voter opinion in the presidential race as much as the first debate did. That was unexpected, and Obama’s uncharacteristic and rather shocking passivity reignited Romney’s campaign and gave him a temporary leg up in the polls. Obama came back to rock his essential Barackatude in the second and third debates, all of which attracted huge viewerships. That would suggest that people are searching for up-close, somewhat organic, long-form content on the issues, and not the ugly, by-the-numbers, extruded ad units that the red and blue parties and Super PACS paid to run, over and over.
But back to the ads: they seemed set up to reinforce preexisting prejudices, to reignite the violently polarized partisan culture that rose up this political season, resulting in little tolerance for other views.
A friend pointed out that she hasn’t seen one person wearing a campaign button this year, when four years ago we were awash in them. Perhaps the hyperpartisan climate this year had a chillingly pin-preventing effect; maybe people were afraid of the punch in the nose that would ensue.
I’m an Obama voter, and there’s no way I can be completely objective, I know. But in the spirit of bipartisan election analysis, I thought I’d mention some of the spots that I found particularly egregious.
Let’s get Mitt’s out of the way. Yes, there was a lot of blowback to the spot that claimed Obama allowed Chrysler to be sold to Italians who are exporting jobs to China. Whether it’s factually true or not, I haven’t heard the word “Italian” uttered in such a disparaging way in my lifetime. It seemed so retro -- with a visual of a Hitchcockian blonde (the opposite of a dark little woman with a moustache and underarm hair) driving a convertible -- that I actually found it funny.
Way worse was the Romney campaign’s “evil Chinese” fear-mongering spot that indulged in Charlie Chan-era stereotypes. Set some time in the future, when the Asian ones have apparently become our evil overlords, it shows a Chinese professor lecturing his students about how stupid the U.S. was in letting its indebtedness to China grow so much. He says this with an evil laugh, and his students laugh, too, as if to suggest that heartless look-alike masses of Chinese are laughing at us losers.
As for the Obama camp: Among the contenders was a real sleeper for me, considering that it was created by new “It’ girl Lena Dunham. (I loved her sensibility in her indie movie “Tiny Furniture,” and in her current, hugely honest and self-referential HBO hit series “Girls.) The whole middle of the over-two-minute video -- hectoring college-aged kids on how lame it is not to vote -- was fine. It was the beginning and the end, in which she talks about “her first time,” and that it should be “special” and that “you want to do it with a great guy” that was creepy and cringe-inducing. “Before I was a girl. Now I was a woman. I went to the polling station, behind the polling curtain, I voted for Barack Obama.” Yuck.
The self-obsession is not cute in this context. Sexualizing the vote is plain dumb. I actually preferred the spot showing a woman in a pink felt vagina suit, talking about how Democrats treat her well. (The whole crazy talk of “legitimate rape” or rape as a “gift” on the right has brought out a certain fierce vaginal politics on the left. )
The absolute worst was Michael Moore’s spot for MoveOn.org. It opens on a shot of the “Rosebud Nursing Home.” Then it shows sweet little old people cursing like sailors! Hey, that’s a cliche we’ve seen a gazillion times -- why not include a rapping granny while you’re at it?
It’s a shame really, because when the first elderly woman (an actress identified as age 97) introduces herself, she has a beautiful voice and says something interesting: “My first vote was in 1940 for Franklin D. Roosevelt, and I have not missed an election since.” Given that vantage point, I was interested in hearing what her opinion of this year’s election was, in a sort of documentary, Rick Burns-ish way. Instead, she says: “I want the Republican party to know, if your voter suppression throughout this beautiful country enables Romney to oust Barack Obama, we will burn this motherfucker down.”
Adds Dorothy, a woman of color identified as “age 75”: “If the Republicans steal this election, I’m going to track down Mitt Romney and give him the world’s biggest cock punch… right in the nut sack.”
Gee, that’s helpful. That’ll teach him. The Greatest-Generation World War II vet who says he’s gonna watch us having sex after he dies if Romney steals the election just reaffirms that someone should have told Moore this is sophomoric bullshit, not good enough for MoveOn.
But, finally, here’s the good news: We have about a year of campaign-ad free airwaves to look forward to now. Enjoy.