ABC’s Martha Raddatz did, I thought, on the whole, a pretty good job moderating Thursday night’s vice presidential debate, particularly when asking questions on her area of expertise, foreign policy. But her final question of the night, about the negativity and sordidness of electoral politics, really bothered me.
Here’s what she asked:
I recently spoke to a highly decorated soldier who said that this presidential campaign has left him dismayed. He told me, quote, “the ads are so negative and they are all tearing down each other rather than building up the country.” What would you say to that American hero about this campaign? And at the end of the day, are you ever embarrassed by the tone?
That soldier, of course, isn’t alone: Lots of Americans feel the same way. I’ve heard the same thing from random voters I’ve interviewed in every campaign I’ve covered. And it’s a recurring theme among the political press paid to cover politics to bemoan the nastiness and negativity of the thrust and parry of electoral politics. But it’s an impulse we should collectively resist, because it contains the kernel of an insidious view of the value of democracy and diplomacy and bureaucracy and the manifold ways that we as human beings channel and resolve conflict in a non-violent fashion.
The same distaste for the plodding, clunky, at times flat-out ugliness of process in Raddatz’s question was also on display in Paul Ryan’s repeated attacks on the administration’s UN-based diplomacy on Iran.
It’s true that the UN can be maddeningly dysfunctional, that the constitution of the security council is an accident of history and that Russia’s objections to any and all US proposals can seem to Americans truculent and spiteful, but what, exactly is the alternative? The answer is violence, war, death, bloodshed.
Which brings us to the announcement yesterday from the Nobel Prize Committee of a somewhat unconventional choice for this year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize: the European Union. The announcement occasioned a whole lot of snark stateside. Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post tweeted, “Not a good sign if the EU asks that its Nobel Prize be paid in some currency other than the Euro.” Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic tweeted, “Next year, the Nobel committee should consider awarding the peace prize to puppies.” Slate’s Dave Weigel tweeted, “You know who else has gone several decades without committing genocide? This guy right here. Nobel me.” And the team over at FOX and Friends also mocked the committee’s decision.
Gretchen Carlson: The Nobel committee praised the EU for its six decades of efforts to promote peace and democracy in Europe.
Brian Kilmeade: Really?
Carlson: …and those are Kilmeade: fantastic. [crosstalk] we should have the sportswriters do it, theyre better at picking the cy young
Steve Doocy: The EU can only hope there’s a cash reward with that they could use some money right now
And it’s true that the Europe isn’t in the best of shape right now. The limitations of its governing structure are causing institutional dysfunction, widespread misery and threatening to terminate the entire project. Greece, submerged in the misery of austerity, is seeing fascists gain traction, administering brutally violent beatings to political enemies in a fashion horrifyingly reminiscent of Weimar Germany.
But to mock the EU is to lose sight of what a tremendous accomplishment it has been on a small patch of earth that was the site of some of the most horrifying war, violence, brutality, sadism and genocide in the history of the planet. In a span of 6 years, at least 40 million perished on Europe’s soil, and the EU was constructed as a means of bringing peace and stability to a continent that had more or less known only war. The European Union doesn’t have a whole lot of defenders at this moment in its history, but mockery of the EU rests on the same impulse we see in the laments of the nastiness of our presidential campaign and the huffing and puffing at the inadequacy of Iran diplomacy.
In each case, the process may be messy and ugly and torturous, but it’s almost always better than the alternative. Conflict is part of the human condition: there are limited resources, there are differing interests and cultures and tribes and value systems, with different conceptions of the good, vastly different priorities and first principles. Democracy is the system we’ve come up with to resolve those inevitable conflicts, but there is no such thing as a placid equilibrium in which those conflicts somehow disappear, or are only articulated in the gentlest fashion. That’s the point. Conflict is the underlying constant of human society. The question is what we do with it. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that either we have people killing each other in the streets like dogs, or we have people running attack ads against each other. Bureaucracy, parliamentary procedure, extended multi-lateral talks, the back and forth of campaign ads, are largely glory-less enterprises, in the grand sweep of history, they are beautiful, sublime achievements, they represent nearly unthinkable progress and point the way towards a future of full human flourishing.