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Davis, California

Monday, February 26, 2024

Column: Nasty politics

Everyone knows that politics is an ugly business. Vicious barbs, blatant distortions and character attacks are almost expected, part of the game in the same way that taxes are a part of life. Civil, cooperative politics is an ideal from another era, a golden age that may or may not have existed but is held on a pedestal and longed for by many in the middle of the political spectrum.

Yet the news that a billionaire from Wyoming apparently commissioned an attack campaign directly tying President Obama to Reverend Jeremiah Wright in the most blatant way possible raised eyebrows even among those who make a living in this nasty art.

For those who may have forgotten, Reverend Wright was President Obama’s former pastor and was an incredibly polarizing figure during the last presidential campaign. He made derogatory, race-charged comments about his country and was suitably denounced by figures on all sides of the political establishment.

An effort to tie Obama to Wright was considered off-limits by the McCain campaign during the 2008 election simply because Wright was considered to be too far out there. Any linkage between Obama and his old pastor is certainly a negative one, however, and might cause many voters to question Obama’s judgment for being a member of his church. Obama says that he was never in the audience when Wright was making his incendiary comments, which I can believe given the President’s decidedly low-key religiosity.

The man who commissioned and funded the campaign is a billionaire named Joe Ricketts, a conservative connoisseur who has donated over $3 million to right-wing causes and politicians in the past. Joe Ricketts says that he never intended for the attack campaign to be used and that it was “dead on arrival.”

That excuse is rather hard to believe and appears to be little more than a desperate effort to save face. The author of the attack campaign is famous for his viscous, below-the-belt work. It should have been no surprise that the final product would be less than pretty.

There are a few issues that are really striking about all this. The first is the fact that one man can and still plans on funding an entire campaign against the President. That is a disturbing notion — if you have enough money, you can saturate the airways with negative messaging and potentially sway an election if the voting is close (and most pundits and political experts say that it will be). Imagine that you could live in a country where a single man has the power to decide who your next president will be.

Or, rather, a group of men could possibly determine the outcome. There have been several rich conservative figures who have donated millions of dollars over the last few months to entities known as “Super PACs” that are little more than marketing shops churning out partisan messaging to a living room near you. Thanks to our lovely, conservative Supreme Court, individuals and corporations can pour unlimited sums of money into these PACs.

Democrats and the President’s campaign are running scared at the reality these PACs present. They readily acknowledge that conservative interests could outspend them this election and make it that much harder for Obama to get reelected. It’s a good feeling to know I live in a country where the most important election in the world is decided by a handful of old conservative men. Go, America.

The second issue is the very nature of the ad campaign. It is absolutely nasty. The memorandum introducing the campaign talks about finding an “extremely literate conservative African-American” who would be the spokesman and face of the campaign and thus inoculate against charges that the campaign is engaging in dirty, racial tactics.

Can we just ban contributions that are higher than, say, five grand or so? Oh, wait, we had laws like that on the books up until a few years ago. The Supreme Court made a big mistake in striking campaign finance and political contribution laws off the books in their sweeping Citizen’s United verdict, a law that established limits on the amount of financial influence individuals and businesses can have in the political realm, back in 2010. This law needs to be restored, or else our country will end up being run by a handful of rich old right-wingers — not exactly a vision of the democratic ideal our country is supposed to represent.

Democracy? A civil, serious and respectable dialogue about the issues in this election? Good one.

You can contact JONATHAN NELSON at jdnelson@ucdavis.edu. So go do it.

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