Yeah, looking back, it was too much to expect that this election year would be different.
It was naïve to fall for the promise of a vigorous debate on important issues. Or to hope at least for a little less bullshit.
Just a little less bullshit didn't seem such an unreasonable hope once it became clear that the Bush-Clinton era — 18-year-olds will vote in November never having known a president without one of those names — was officially over.
Predictably, though, and in a way that's destined to disillusion anyone who thought this time might be different, the summer has devolved into name-calling, lies and yawn-inducing rhetoric. And I'm not even talking about the campaigns. I'm talking about people who write letters to The Kansas City Star.
The letters-to-the-editor page is usually the best thing in the paper each morning. If nothing else, it offers a cross-section of occasionally thoughtful points made by people who live in the city, still read newsprint and are engaged enough to write and send an opinion. This summer, though, reading the letters page has been like stepping into a time machine and hurtling back to the first presidential campaign I paid attention to because I was finally old enough to vote.
What I remember from the first Reagan campaign and every election since is one whiney, simplistic mantra. Though this time was supposed to be different, the old, juvenile refrain has nothing to do with a needless war fought on a president's lies, the convoluted geopolitics of terrorism, the sinful condition of public health care, the corrosion of education, the growing income gap between the rich and the poor that decimates the middle class and belies the American dream, the failure to transcend filthy 20th-century forms of energy, the sinking job market, the floundering economy, the swelling intolerance among our own people.... Yeah, regardless of all that, the Republican argument about the Democrat always boils down to one thing.
The anachronistic argument is everywhere; the Star's letters page is just an easy example of how it sounds.
Gary Pederson, Kansas City, Tuesday, August 19: "Vote for Barack Obama if.... You'd be happy with massive, blanket entitlements with huge tax increases on the very people who provide jobs to Americans."
Tommy Hammond, Liberty, Wednesday, August 20: "If you want higher taxes on everyone, vote for Barack Obama."
Jonathan Cox of Kansas City, Thursday, August 21: "If you want everyone to pay huge tax increases, vote for Obama."
Of course these writers occasionally make other arguments, but here's the point: The argument that the Democrat will "raise your taxes" is old, tedious bullshit. It's bullshit because of one simple truth: The current administration has been as responsible with our tax money as a coked-up carny in Reno, making any discussion of higher or lower taxes, at this point, irrelevant.
For proof, brace yourself and sit down with the new book by Thomas Frank, the Shawnee Mission East alum (class of '83) who has become one of the country's most articulate bullshit detectors. In his previous book, What's the Matter With Kansas, Frank explains how conservatives keep falling for the same dirty trick: They elect politicians who promise protection from abortionists and gun grabbers and gays but, once they're elected, make economic policies that vaporize the fortunes of the good, hardworking, values-loving Americans who voted for them (while doing little to stop abortions and same-sex weddings).
In his new book, The Wrecking Crew, Frank details what's happened since all those values-promoting conservatives have been in office.
His basic argument, made much more entertainingly than I can: A government in which civil servants provide basic services — sending us our Social Security checks, making sure our food and water are clean, watching out for hazards in our workplaces or on our airplanes — that's a good thing. But conservatives rose to power selling the idea that "big government" is bad, and they've effectively killed off that government by selling it to their private-sector pallies, who know nothing about providing basic services. Now the Federal Emergency Management Agency can't manage squat, the FDA can't track salmonella outbreaks and "Iraq reconstruction" is an oxymoron. Meanwhile, conservative lobbyists and corporate cronies with government contracts have grown rich off our taxes.
"If they didn't want taxes to be raised, they shouldn't have invaded a country and done this incredibly expensive occupation and raised this deficit," Frank tells me. "Somebody's going to have to pay off this deficit and taxes are going to have to be raised — that's unavoidable now. It's true that George Bush did not raise taxes, but he effectively did because he spent so much and it has to be paid for sooner or later."
The real debate, Frank says, isn't about who will raise taxes but who will pay them.
"There's a million ways to structure taxes. You can design them very specifically to hit one group or another. A sales tax will hit working people. A corporate income tax will hit another group. You can fiddle with the income tax. You could have a flat tax where, again, working people would pay, or you could have a more progressive tax in which the wealthy people would pay."
Frank is speaking to me the morning after his talk and book signing last Friday at Unity Temple on the Plaza. He's about to drive to across Kansas to Denver for the Democratic National Convention, where he'll be reporting for his new Wall Street Journal column.
The night before, he wrapped up his speech with an ominous point.
"It's obvious to me now, after researching this book, that throwing the rascals out is no longer the answer. The problem is structure. The problem is inscribed on the map of Washington, D.C. It flows from the logos on the contractors' office buildings you see driving around the beltway. It is built into the systems of governments themselves."
To illustrate, he described lunch with a friend at a restaurant where military officers dine with Pentagon contractors. "I was telling him about my theory," Frank said. "And he responded by sweeping his hands out to take in this scene around us: these guys having lunch together, the KBR building down the street, Lockheed Martin right next door to that. He said, 'You think all of this is just going to go away if Obama gets in? This whole industry? This whole economy? All these profits?'"
It was a chilling slug of reality. What are we to do if simply voting for the other party isn't enough? The least we can do is start calling more bullshit.
Click here to write a letter to the editor.