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I wish I could blame it all on one party, or one ideology, but sadly, that isn't the case. Pandering in the political process is on all sides, and it goes even deeper than that. It pervades our media establishment, it pervades our so-called "alternative" media here on the Internet, it is everywhere, and it is increasingly annoying and dangerous.

Just look at the etymology of the word, and you'll get a sense of what is going on. "Pandering" has a sexual connotation in middle English: one of the first definitions of to pander is to pimp. To be a go-between in sexual liaisons. To pander, properly, is to cater to one's basest desires. There are no greater panderers than our two leading political parties, who in this struggle for the future of our nation in this crucial time in our history have taken to a most insulting, salacious pattern of pandering.

I will not say that today's politicians pander worse than those of the past. Stephen Douglas, in his vaunted debates with Abraham Lincoln, did some real pandering when he kept calling Frederick Douglass Lincoln's "friend." The Democrats of the late nineteenth century pandered on race issues. And what of the Know-Nothings and Anti-Masons?

In the modern era, then Vice President Spiro Agnew kicked off the modern era of political pandering with a speech he delivered in Des Moines, Iowa in 1969, written partially by Pat Buchanan. In that speech, Agnew went after "the media," and exploited small town and rural folks' insecurities and suspicion of Easterners and the well-educated in order to deflect attacks on the Presidents' policies. It was in that speech that we were introduced to academics as "an effete corps of impudent snobs." Later, Agnew would regale us with "nattering nabobs of negativism." The message? Hate people who know more than you!

The so-called "culture wars" of the '80s, '90s and up to the current day exacerbated this problem. It became very easy to confuse the public about policy and candidates because everybody is terrified of having to explain anything to Americans. In the presidential debates of this cycle both George W. Bush and John F. Kerry were guilty of pandering, and the parties as a whole are doing their best to insult the collective intelligence of Americans.

Ironically, true conservatives and true liberals are the ones least likely to pander: Pat Buchanan, who wrote the Agnew speech, is actually a pretty good example of somebody who, publicly at least, resists the temptation to pander. He is a xenophobic reactionary protectionist, and he wants to tell you about it. Fine. But the turf war over so-called swing voters has encouraged the candidates and the parties to pander at every possible turn. John Kerry was so worried about being branded a big-government liberal (a term invented by panderers) that he actually watered down issues he believes in, like the bogey of tort reform, or properly funding social programs. Some call this "political intelligence." It is not. It is pandering.

And President Bush and his ruling coterie are masters of pandering, with their base appeals to people's fears and their ridiculous simplification of complex issues. The Bush Administration's pandering to the fundamentalist Christian lobby on the issue of sex education may be costing thousands of lives in Africa and other places. Rather than take a stand and trust Americans to understand the complexities of an issue, they boil it down to a sentence.

Our newspapers and television newsmagazines, outside of wars, commit almost no time to foreign coverage. They do not touch issues effecting our environment. They never discuss the realities of our segregated cities, or the real issues that effect minorities. If they did, perhaps they'd find that what is politically correct is not always what people believe. They would see that groups like African-Americans, Latinos, single mothers, etc., are not monolithic. They are complex. Americans would begin to see that our nation is large, and they would, truly, seek to know the wideness of the world.

This entire situation is exacerbated further by the right-wing attack machine that drowns out attempts to explain or educate. Russ Feingold, the sole Nay vote in the 99-1 vote on the USA PATRIOT Act, was excoriated for his position, drown in a sea of misinformation and baseless attacks. It came from so many angles that he never had the opportunity to explain himself. And yet he won reelection. Because the voters understand when a person stands on principles. Many are not so lucky. At the same time, many leftist activist groups are quick to action but short on reason. We are more interested in how good a politician somebody is than what their ideas are. In our own state, Barack Obama, an intelligent, well-rounded man with many good ideas, was trivlialized as a "rock star" — people were more impressed with his race and his ability to win white voters despite his complexion than his policy proposals, which got short shrift. America is not well served by these attitudes.

This marketing-oriented culture, which rejects substance for the package it comes in, is indicative of a trend in our culture. The shift from an industrial, manufacturing society to a market, service economy has been reflected in the type of news we get. We don't get the substance of what universal, single-payer health care really is: we get how people react to what people think it is. What purpose does this serve? What information has truly been communicated? A major report on the situation in Iraq comes out, and the media are more focused on how it effects President Bush's approval rating than on what it means for the young men and women fighting and dying in that war.

We are a nation of panderers. We expect pandering from our politicians, and too often punish them if they fail to do it — often because the media and political establishment drown out any civil public discourse. As long as this is so, it will be nearly impossible to truly address issues that are not discussed for their lack of "sex appeal" but are of dire importance. This, more than any terrorist threat or economic instability, will be the ruining of our great democratic experiment in the New World.

We would do well to remember the Scripture, Proverbs 15:14:

The heart of him that hath understanding seeketh knowledge: but the mouth of fools feedeth on foolishness.

In this society, Americans are starving for real knowledge, but perhaps we are not given the understanding to seek it. We are left, instead, famished, feeding on foolishness.

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Comments

J. / January 10, 2006 4:51 PM

At what point is it all pandering?

You note that Pat Buchanan's "xenophobic reactionary protectionist" positions are not pandering because they are sincere. But isn't PB simply pandering to the lowest (and I do mean lowest) common denominator in American populism? Is the fact that these opinions are truly held make them any less pandering?

I guess I am just not sure if "pandering" charges should apply only when politicians modify their true-blue positions to curry favor with the voters (a la Kerry in your example above) or if it should still be called pandernig when a politician takes the cheapsest shot he can -- even if the shot is based on his truly-held belief system.

All this pandering is made much easier by the press which elevates form over substance (such as the glib "rock star" press coverage of people like Senator Obama).

By the way, I think yo are spot-on with your observation that Senator Obama's positions are much more subtle and complex than the right wingers -- and most lefties -- are willing to admit.

I also agree with your criticism that American leaders are loathe to discuss the details of policy and are reluctant to make hard decisions or stand up to their consituencies. As you stated, the press is complacent in this by refusing to cover complex stories at all (or at least in a detail-oriented way) as well as their editorial policy to cover only the "horserace" of politics.

Here's what I want to know, Ramsin -- is pandering inherent in our republican democracy?

Somebody (too lazy to find out who it was) once said that a politician is a person who sees which way a band is marching and then runs out in front of them with a baton.

Maybe that is that the way it has to be -- American voters don't seem very patient when a politician, no matter how bright or well-intentioned, tries to "educate" them on an issue and have them march to a different drummer. Maybe that's what a republican democracy requires, for better or for worse.

Love to hear more from you on these topics.

Go Bears.

-J

 

About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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