Can we make our politics less vicious and dumb? Or has the horse left the barn?

March 22, 2019 5:37 am

Voters in suburban Henrico’s Short Pump precinct cast their ballots. The area saw a surge in Democratic voters after Trump’s 2016 election. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

What’s even a low blow or cheap shot anymore in this begrimed age of Trump? Have we all sunken permanently into the mud of a new, no-holds-barred normal, where apologizing is anathema, facts are irrelevant and trying to score points is all that matters?

Politics has always been vicious, angry and often dumb, but spend a day wading through the seething, roiling mass of ugliness that is Twitter and it’s hard not to believe that it’s gotten worse.

Witness the Henrico Democratic Committee’s inept social media fundraising posts baselessly  trying to link an eight year-old photo featuring a contortion of the hand of GOP House Speaker Kirk Cox to a gesture made by the accused white supremacist perpetrator of the New Zealand massacre earlier this month.

There are a few things of note here:

  • The Henrico County Democratic Committee, in a spectacular bit of cognitive dissonance, evidently forgot that two of Virginia’s top-elected Democrats are still struggling to pull themselves out from under their own racial scandals, which Republicans promptly reminded them about.
  • Relatively few Virginia Democrats condemned this reach of a tweet. Put on the spot, Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, who, in fairness, is probably sick of talking about this stuff at this point, told the Times-Dispatch that Cox hasn’t demonstrated white supremacist tendencies “in my presence.”

A bad look all around.

Of course, it’s not like the Virginia GOP are acting like models of statesmanship on their Twitter account. The party that put Corey Stewart forward as its candidate for U.S. Senate is currently hosting a NCAA-style bracket contest for “most disgraceful Democrat.”

Before this descends into a flaming tailspin of what-aboutism and which team is worse, I would posit something that may be unpopular. The problem isn’t as much them as us: the electorate.

Turnout was considered exceptional in last fall’s mid-term elections, but it was still about 50 percent nationwide, according to estimates. (In Virginia, we did better.)

In these bitterly divided times, when it seems to those of us glued to social media that political combat is on everyone’s mind, millions of Americans still couldn’t be bothered to show up for what pundits were labeling the most consequential election of our lifetimes.

For some perspective, consider this Pew chart that compares U.S. voter turnout to other developed countries. On second thought, I can save you a click: We don’t look good.

Because elections appear increasingly tribal and about getting your team to the polls by hook or crook, we tend to lurch from one angry electorate to another — from the Tea Party to the Resistance.

Low turnout has real consequences for our elections, politics and governance. When winning is all about getting your voters to the polls, that can mean distorted paeans to their worst instincts and unrealistic fears while demonizing the opposition, fueling a cycle of polarization that is becoming a perpetual motion machine.

“Voters say they are tired of the anger and polarization emanating from Washington,” as The Washington Post put it.  “They say they crave compromise. Yet these same voters view the rival party with disdain and frequently punish politicians for reaching across partisan lines. They want the anger to stop but can’t stop being angry.”

Maybe some simple fixes could go a long way.

We should vote on weekends, when most people aren’t juggling work, daycare, school or other commitments, or at least make Election Day a holiday.

Barriers to registration should be lowered and early voting should be ubiquitous. (In a rare bit of bipartisanship, the Virginia General Assembly took a good, if small, step forward in this direction earlier this year in the form of a bill allowing no excuse absentee voting. It awaits the governor’s signature).

If voting is more convenient, it stands to reason more people will take advantage of it. And a bigger electorate forces candidates to make broader appeals.

Multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting could remove some of the political incentives for ratcheting up the volume and casting elections as apocalyptic struggles between good and evil. It would also give voters more choices.  Lack of choice is a major reason why some voters sit out elections.

Revisiting some of these basic aspects of our electoral and political system would be modest, if productive steps on the road back to a functional democracy.

Then again, I think back to that GOP primary debate in 2016, when the man who would become president of the United States reassured the nation about the size of his own penis. (We were all treated to a competing account about his anatomy last fall)

And I look at the never-ending parade of Democratic 2020 contenders lining up for a primary that promises to be a long, drawn-out exercise in competitive wokeness.

And I wonder if the horse left the barn long ago.


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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers before becoming editor of the Virginia Mercury in 2018. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact him at [email protected]