I generally find going negative in American politics to be fairly appalling. When the Bush machine ripped into McCain in 2000, I winced as a fine American was being coated in mud by his own party (thus violating Reagan’s 11th commandment). When John Kerry was swift-boated in 2004, I also winced. Once again, an American who had bravely served his country in a time of war was under attack by the Republican machine.
When the machinations for the 2008 American Presidential elections started gearing up, I worried that the candidates would go negative quickly and seek out new slimy depths. While there was some internal strive over race and gender among the Democrats and the Republicans sniped at each other a bit, the process was relatively civil. Mostly, anyway.
When the convention balloons had finally settled, it seemed that McCain and Obama would run relatively clean campaigns. In fact, McCain showed good character in congratulating Obama on his historic achievement of being the first black major party Presidential candidate in the United States . On September 11th, both candidates showed good character (or savvy political skill) by suspending their political battle and walking together.
Unfortunately, after those clean moments, the campaign has started getting a bit dirty. Ironically, McCain is the one who has started the descent towards the usual political filth of lies and viciousness. Recently, McCain drew fire for falsely accusing Obama of advocating sex education for Illinois kindergartners and call Sarah Palin a lipstick wearing pig (she herself claims to be, in effect, a lipstick wearing pit bull).The irony is that McCain himself was a victim of nasty politics in 2000 and he had a reputation for straight talk and good behavior.
The reason for the change seems to mark a fundamental moral shift for McCain. In the past, he was regarded as a man of principle who seemed most concerned with doing what was what right. For example, McCain took a strong stand against the use of torture. However, he seems to be moving away from his old principles and seems to have adopted a classic principle: doing whatever it takes to win.
Ironically, McCain’s people seem to have adopted the same strategies and tactics that were employed against him in 2000. Of course, this can be seen a prudent choice: they worked then and they are working now. While McCain was lagging behind Obama in the polls, he has recently tied and some polls show him as being ahead. While some pundits attribute some of this to his selection of Sarah Palin, it has been noted that his use of negative tactics has proved effective. Part of the effectiveness is that Democrats are not as good at being nasty as Republicans and part of it is that Obama does not seem very comfortable with that style of politics. But, McCain was also uncomfortable with it before, so perhaps Obama will learn to stomach the nastiness as well.
Naturally enough, this raises the old ethical questions about whether employing such means to win is justified. If one takes the view of the classic sophists, then McCain is acting in a prudent matter. After all, to the sophist, what matters is success and one should not be concerned about the means (except in terms of their effectiveness). Of course, to those of a more Socratic bent, that sort of approach is fundamentally flawed. What matters for such people is not success, but being good. As in the ring of Gyges section of the Republic, the candidates have a choice between justice and injustice. McCain seems to have made his.
I was hoping for a better sort of campaign between two decent men. However, I suspect that I will be disappointed once more. On the plus side, this situation has given me excellent examples to use in my critical thinking and ethics classes. Further, it also allowed me to show how the sophists of ancient Greece are still relevant today. They would be quite at home in American politics.