It’s hard to imagine how a campaign could get any nastier than Mississippi’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. It can’t get over fast enough for most people.
Of course it won’t be over when it’s over. The scars within the Republican Party will not heal quickly, and the scars on the larger political landscape in Mississippi will be around for a long time as well.
What we are seeing in this campaign is the culmination of a steady rise in Mississippi, as elsewhere, of the politics of personal destruction. It is not new, but it has reached a level that threatens to undermine our entire political system.
That it would happen in a campaign involving a man who epitomizes an era when people could disagree without personal animosity, and when finding common ground was the foundation of governing, is particularly sad.
Thad Cochran’s approach to governing is what has gotten him in trouble with a wing of the Republican Party that despises compromise. That the U.S. Constitution, which the Tea Party proclaims as the centerpiece of its message, was birthed by a series of political compromises seems lost in the anti-compromise translation.
An unwillingness to compromise is not, of course, the same thing as pursuing a path of personal destruction against your political adversaries. But inherent in both is an absolute certainty and insistence that I am right and you are wrong, that there is nothing in your approach that might be incorporated into my thinking, that I can’t fathom finding any common ground from which we can forge agreement. Carry this thinking too far and it can lead to viewing opponents not just as wrong politically and philosophically but as bad people who need to be crushed.
Clearly this was the thinking of the blogger who took Rose Cochran’s picture in her nursing home room and posted it online with an anti-Thad Cochran video. Nothing is out of bounds when you’re convinced you’re right and anybody who thinks differently from you is a mortal enemy.
The other people who’ve been charged as conspirators in this case – including a Central Mississippi Tea Party activist and Chris McDaniel donor and fundraiser – no doubt believe they’re on a mission to save our political system. Instead they are damaging it badly.
Governing is contentious. There’s no getting around that. But our founders envisioned, and at its best our government has operated, as a mechanism to bring together and balance competing interests. The genius of our system is that it is structurally set up to force give and take to get anything done.
Yes, hyperpartisanship has led to party-line votes in which legislation is passed without bipartisan consensus or compromise. But even that is a symptom of the compromise-is-evil mentality that has been stoked in recent years. If compromise is consorting with the enemy, who wants to get caught doing it?
The whole thrust of the McDaniel campaign has been that Cochran deserves disdain because he’s a deal-maker and consensus-builder. Those were once valued qualities in a politician.
Cochran has also through the years been a model of political civility, and that is no longer in vogue.
McDaniel has had trouble squaring what he knew and when about the photo episode, but I’m willing to take him at his word that he had nothing to do with it and genuinely finds it “reprehensible.” Yet we’re living in a political environment so polarized that a fervent devotee of a candidate – perhaps even a group of several “conspirators” – apparently believed they were doing their candidate a favor by engaging in such brazenly cruel behavior.
Where do we go from here? How do we get politics and campaigns out of the long, scorched-earth season we’re in?
It won’t be easy because too many politicians and political professionals – not to mention wild-eyed bloggers and cable network loudmouths – have a vested interest in the politics of polarization and personal destruction. But at some point the rest of us have to say, enough is enough. Aren’t we there?
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.