Civility has never been a guiding precept on the campaign trail. Histrionics and sensationalism have always been used to paint elections as a scenario between impending doom and a white knight savior.
All the ghoulish attack ads of the past and present are all designed to push this narrative in context of the most pressing issues of the day. Some of the most famous examples include partisan newspapers in the 1800 election which launched savage campaigns against the personal characters of rivals Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
Then there’s the 1964 “Daisy” ad for Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign which equated a vote for his Republican challenger Barry Goldwater would lead to a nuclear holocaust.
The idea that civility, temperance towards opponents and a basic cordiality play some sort of modulating role in elections is a myth. But those who warn about the increasing divisiveness of American politics are right to be concerned, not because politics has become more pejorative—clearly it hasn’t—but because there is an alarming trend of coordination between party organizations and government organizations.
While the term “agitprop” is thrown around far too nonchalantly by over-preening celebrities who consider their pithy commercial works that speak truth to power to be a brave challenge to the hegemony that actually protects their rights, the shift in campaign strategy does come alarmingly close to looking like Soviet-style direction of popular will.
Agitprop, taken from the Russian agitatsiya propaganda, was officially sanctioned art, appearing in many forms, produced with the sanction of the Kremlin to advance the Marxist-Leninist worldview and specifically aimed at whipping up the potent power of nationalistic populism. The appropriation of the term by the Western intelligentsia is particularly heinous in consideration of the fact that they operate independent of government censorship, something which dissenters in the USSR could not do without consequence.
The macabre implications of the word means it should be considered in an appropriate context. And, sad to say, 2016 seems like an appropriate time to have such a dialogue. Elected officials have long been involved in actively campaigning for their party, which is dubious enough given that the Founders lobbied for what would eventually become the Hatch Act, which attempts to stop government from stepping into the partisan fray of elections.
But never before have organizations like the Justice Department appeared to coordinate investigations to play into an electoral narrative. And never before has this appeared in conjunction with evidence that party organizations are orchestrating protests to make one viewpoint appear socially reviled and another more popular than it actually is.
The evidence of collusion which exists between party organizations and the government is not concrete enough to make the definitive argument that the election has been rigged. But it does say something about the culture of voting when there is evidence of some collusion and neither the media nor the vast majority of electorate seem to see any issue with it. At the very least, every voter should be upset by the implied disdain for the intellect of the voter which the blatant and unrepentant attempts by major parties to sway elections demonstrate.
In the past opposition research and smear tactics have demonstrated the tawdriness of rhetoric which appeals to the masses. But its heavy-handedness has been its own undoing, for voters could see the dishonesty in it and rejected such behavior as being beneath a basic standard of conduct to which they expected government to conform.
Ultimately, in voting for parties and candidates that reveal their willingness to participate in this kind of underhandedness, voters give their tacit consent to it, which only encourages its growth in future. Again, this is not to promote wild-eyed conspiracy theories about Stalin-esque electioneering, but merely to raise a point of concern about a lack of transparency which is conducive to the manipulation of the electorate.