The Politics of Negativity

636036954806290135-306513333_vote-2016New Orleans   As I drove out of Little Rock before dawn, I started flipping through radio stations to hear what was on besides KABF in a bit of informal early morning market research. I listened for a bit towards Pine Bluff to a panel of politicos who headed the Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian Parties in Arkansas along with a couple of political scientists try to puzzle out something they called the Arkansas “electorate.”

Needless to say, there was at best imperfect agreement on anything other than the fact that at least in this moment in time they felt that Arkansas voters might be among the reddest, most Republican voters in the country. Independents have migrated, largely in reaction to Obama and the Obama presidency more clearly to the Republican column, leaving them with more than 40% identification, Democrats in the mid-30’s, and Libertarians and Independents sharing the difference. Yet, paradoxically, it was interesting that they thought the top of the ticket was almost irrelevant to Arkansas voters this election, because they were focused on different ideological issues. In some ways that didn’t compute. In a reaction to Obama,they went more Republican, yet in a reaction to Trump they were going more local? The Democratic Party chief gamely argued he thought it was more “fluid” and would go “cycle to cycle.” I would have thought he would have doubled-down on the potential impact the top of the ticket would have?

This is not just an Arkansas story. It is likely to be an American story.

There is also a huge contradiction embedded in one of the professor’s arguments about what she felt were the ideological commitments of the voters. One person interjected a point that seemed the most insightful of their arguments about what he called the “politics of negativity,” which seemed spot on and would undermine any ideology. He pointed out in this election and many others, people were not voting “for” something or someone as much as they were voting “against” someone and something.

His point drifted away as so often occurs in these kinds of he say, she say things, but it’s worth keeping front and center. The identity crisis the Republicans find themselves struggling with around issues about values, trade, immigration, and even social programs with the base migrating to Trump, even though he is nowhere near the Republican Party line ideology on any of these issues, is partially explained by this notion of “negativity politics.” Negativity equals no ideology. Negativity is the absence of ideology.

The same in a very troubling way can be said about the Democratic Party situation, even if they have not admitted to an identity crisis in the same way the issue is facing the Democrats. The Democratic Party has become the party of the bi-coastal elites, highly educated, and upper middle class and more wealthy, while its base, even though not rebelling yet, is lower income, blacker, browner, younger, and more voting against than for its leadership and any notion of ideology.

The other night I watched the first episode of “Borgen,” the Danish political television drama on politics, and if that’s a guide of any kind, this may be a global contradiction as well. The woman minority party leader wins the debate at the end of the first show, becoming prime minister, by arguing much the same case, that the politics of negativity should be rejected, and that voters needed to rally to an ideology that reflected the more aspirational national identity and culture. Seems that day might need to leave fiction and become reality here and elsewhere soon as well.

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