Campaign 2012: Bread and circuses

Even Sesame Street's Big Bird, seen on Broadway in New York, got enmeshed in a US election campaign quarrel.</p>

Even Sesame Street's Big Bird, seen on Broadway in New York, got enmeshed in a US election campaign quarrel.

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — The message on the screen could not be more alarming:

“Attention, patriots who oppose Barack Obama," intones a deep baritone. "We can still turn back the tide of socialism that's been taking over our country for the past four years."

Viewers are then requested to call an 800 number to sign a “voice petition,” and, it goes without saying, to make a donation to the campaign of Republican challenger Mitt Romney. In return, the noble “patriot” will get a Romney bumper sticker, as well as the warm feeling that comes from saving one’s country from dire dangers.

This is not an ad on late-night TV; it does not come in the middle of a pitch for the slicing, dicing Ronco Vegematic. Instead, it is inserted in prime-time slots such as CNN’s "Anderson Cooper 360" or "Erin Burnett Out Front."

It is the work of America’s Next Generation LLC, a conservative super political action committee (PAC) of the type spawned by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling of January 2010. The case, which equated corporations with people and money with speech, let loose the dogs of unlimited campaign contributions on the electoral process.

According to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission, America’s Next Generation has raised and spent more than $500,000 on the campaign in a little over six months, most of it from small donors, and pretty much all of it going to telemarketing firms such as Infocision, primarily targeted against President Barack Obama.

Cue the bumper stickers.

It has long been a truism in politics that candidates are marketed and sold like laundry detergent or Coca Cola. The trend goes back to the middle of the last century, when a pair of clever journalists remade themselves into political consultants and launched an industry that now comes close to running the country.

This is all explained in “The Lie Factory,” by Jill Lepore, which ran in the Sept. 24 edition of the New Yorker. It makes for sobering reading. 

The couple, Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker, had a lot to say about the typical American voter, much of it still applicable today.

“A wall goes up,” Whitaker warned, “when you try to make Mr. and Mrs. Average American Citizen work or think.”

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Forget cogent argument; in order to get Joe Six-Pack interested in your campaign, they advise, “You can put on a fight … or you can put on a show.”

Above all: simplify, simplify, simplify. Emotion over reason, sound bites over argument.

Some examples of Whitaker and Baxter’s work have alarming echoes in the 2012 campaign: They helped to defeat Harry Truman’s health care program with generous funding from the American Medical Association. The pair compared the government’s proposal to Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, and ultimately choked the life out of what was originally a pretty popular presidential initiative.

Sound familiar?

The 2012 campaign is one with serious issues. It is about nothing less than what it means to be free and American in the 21st century.

The two candidates have radically different views on the subject, but most voters are probably in the dark about their actual positions.

Instead, the campaigns have been flooded with nonsense and cheap shots intended to sway voters, but not necessarily inform them.

The spurious attacks on Obama’s citizenship and religion are a part of this trend; there are a lot of voters out there who still believe the skillful innuendo and outright untruths that have sought to paint the president as a secret Muslim born in Kenya.

The Democrats have landed their share of cheap shots as well. The much-reviled ad in which a steelworker from a plant closed down by Bain Capital, a private equity group where the Republican candidate served as CEO, all but blames Romney for his wife’s death from cancer is a case in point. 

It’s all part of the show.

Things have come to a pass where truth no longer matters, and the plethora of social media has given every wing nut a voice. It may be too much to ask for Mr. or Ms. Average America to distinguish the credible from the crazy.

“Obama wants to give illegal aliens the vote,” asserted Carol, a woman in her 70s with very definite opinions. She inserted this tidbit into a freewheeling political discussion at a recent family wedding. Most of the attendees were Democrats, this being Massachusetts, but Carol had come up from more conservative Connecticut. She said she had “read it somewhere.”

If you believe blogger J.B. Williams, it is true. Of course, J.B., with his scruffy beard and baseball cap, also claims that “Obama’s Democrat Party is as anti-American as Stalin’s Russia.”

With just three weeks to go before Election Day, candidates are pulling out all the stops. They are enlisting celebrities in their cause — everyone from Morgan Freeman to Big Bird (embedded below) have become embroiled in the campaign.

Lindsay Lohan has taken a break from rehab to endorse Romney, while Madonna has done Obama the doubtful favor of demanding that her fans turn out to vote for the “black Muslim in the White House.” 

Perhaps it’s true, as the French philosopher Joseph de Maistre wrote, that “every country has the government it deserves.” If so, then things look pretty bleak right about now.

More from GlobalPost: Election 2012 — Decoding foreign policy with Jean Mackenzie (video)

Starring the voice of Morgan Freeman:


Starring Big Bird: