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Is it politics… or just schtick?

by Daniel Bayer

Two weeks ago I accompanied one of our writers to a presidential caucus hosted by Vernon Robinson. You know, Vernon Robinson? The former Winston-Salem City Council member who erected – without asking anyone’s permission first – a granite slab with the Ten Commandments and Bill of Rights engraved on it in front of city hall? The politician whose over-the-top attack ads in his congressional race against Brad Miller accused his opponent of wanting to arm illegal aliens, as well as being a homosexual? That Vernon Robinson?

I was a bit worried, given what I knew about him. What would he be like in person? I feared the worst: an evening of gay- and immigrant-bashing, delivered with all the subtlety of a baseball bat to the knees.

As it turned out, I was only half-right. While the issue of illegal immigration was brought up several times during the caucus, Robinson himself turned out to be an affable, laid-back fellow with a self-deprecating sense of humor (gays, strangely enough, were not mentioned at all at the conservative-dominated gathering). Was Robinson’s behavior as a political candidate, so seemingly out of step with the man I had just met, merely opportunistic pandering to the Republican base and a cynical ploy for the votes of the most regressive members of the electorate?

Perhaps. After all, a politician’s job is to get elected, and with the power and money that’s at stake, most play to win, whatever the cost to the truth or the consistency of their positions on the issues. Campaigns, some would say, have always been dirty, and smear tactics are hardly unusual. But the willingness of politicians to adopt personas and positions that would seem to contradict their basic personalities raises the question: At what point does a politician’s ever-shifting “character” – the role that they have chosen to play in the eyes of the voters, not their personal attributes – deny the voters’ rights and expectations to have candidates that represent real, concrete electoral options? When does political expediency cross the line into outright fraud?

Look at former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, for example, whose presidential star is rising according to the latest polls. Huckabee just switched his position on illegal immigrants from a fairly progressive one to a more draconian approach because, as he more or less admitted, it’ll help him win the support of the anti-immigrant faction within his party. But where does that leave those who supported him initially because his original position was a compassionate alternative to that of other Republican candidates? Screwed and disillusioned, that’s where.

“Get off it,” you might say. “Politicians have always said one thing one day, and the exact opposite the next day, and pandered to the beliefs and prejudices of whatever audience they happen to be standing in front of at any given time. You can’t trust any of them. What rock have you been living under?” Unfortunately, this kind of cynicism is the last thing we need our political candidates to be encouraging with their near-daily flip-flopping. If a politician’s behavior, on the campaign trail or in office, leaves the public more disillusioned with our democratic institutions than they were before he or she showed up on the scene, then they’ve failed in their duties, period.

Unfortunately, we’re living in a period when the “character” one plays in one’s everyday life is more important than whatever character one possessed in the first place. “All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players,” said Shakespeare, but I don’t think he could have predicted how completely today’s explosion in communications technology, from phony profiles on MySpace to the screaming heads of talk radio, would obliterate any concepts of “authenticity.” Professional wrestling, for example, routinely presents us with such outrageous personalities and hyperbolic rhetoric that any connection to the “real people” behind them is purely coincidental. Who cares if Mick Foley is “Cactus Jack” one week and “Dude Love” the next? It doesn’t seem to bother the fans, who presumably are just looking for entertainment. It’s not “real,” after all.

So perhaps Robinson and Huckabee are just ahead of the curve. Their campaign rhetoric can be taken at face value by true believers, while those of us with a more post-modern bent could laugh at the way Robinson’s ads seemed to parody classic conservative fear-mongering, and assure ourselves that Huckabee doesn’t really intend to deport every illegal immigrant as soon as takes office; he’s only saying it to get elected, and put one over on the rubes. But do we really want to run our country like a professional wrestling organization? If that’s the case, hell, you might as well vote for Cactus Jack.

E-mail Daniel Bayer at spudkat@earthlink.net.

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