Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Soap Opera Politics

Why is it that the public and the media are more than happy to spend endless hours discussing the details of Herman Cain's encounters with women a number of years ago? For some reason we think these questions are highly relevant to a candidate's qualifications for president. Or maybe we are drawn to the drama of accusation and denial. Or maybe we just enjoy it when the presidential contest descends to the level of celebrity gossip. Since we are more than happy to dissect the doings of public figures like the Kardashians, whose actions are absolutely inconsequential to our lives, we apply that same level of fascination to political figures. Does this kind of soap opera politics reflects a certain immaturity on the part of the American electorate?

In Italy, for a timely example, voters and politicians act in almost the opposite way. Italians re-elected a Prime Minister they knew to be a champion female groper, a serial sexual harasser. Mr. Berlusconi puts any American politician you can think of to shame in that department. But his sexual antics did not bring him down. No, his government is collapsing over important policy and financial issues. In the United States, by contrast, it doesn't seem to matter as much whether a politician's ideas have failed; instead we use their sexual indiscretions to bring them down. It is as if we can't bear to have a serious conversation about important political issues, or we don't really even know or care about the issues. All we care about is politician's personal lives.

In America today, it is not taboo to talk about the sordid details of exactly where on a woman's anatomy a politician may or may not have placed his hands. (And I am not, by the way, trying to trivialize the issue of sexual harassment, or suggest that these accusations are irrelevant. I am just raising a question about why questions of personal misconduct get so much more attention than questions of policy.) It seems that the real taboo subject in American politics is the issues. Particularly some of the ideas Herman Cain has been talking about. The refreshing thing about the Cain candidacy is that he was openly addressing a number of important subjects that have been taboo for many years, subjects that it is well past time we debated in a serious way. One such taboo subject is the role of government in the economy. Cain carries to a new extreme the conventional wisdom that everything the government does is bad for the economy. Leave the private sector alone, and it will flourish. Get government regulation out of business, and they will produce. Stop providing people with so many social services and they will go out and make themselves more productive. In the course of making this argument, Cain may have gone a bit too far, however, such as by denigrating the contributions of public employees like fire fighters, nurses, and teachers to the extent that a lot of people are going to question Cain's whole premise. By raising the issue of the place of government in our society in such an extreme and antagonistic way, he may risk losing the argument for his side. For that reason, the powers that be in the Republican Party may not mind seeing him fall to a more moderate candidate like Romney. But they can't attack Cain for being too anti-government. That would risk confusing and alienating the base. Better to have Cain fall to a sex scandal, and they might be about to continue to avoid having a serious debate about the role of government.

The second taboo subject that Cain's candidacy has brought to the fore is the subject of income inequality. Even without Cain in the race, politicians may no longer be able to sweep that one under the rug any longer. People are coming to be aware that the rich in this country have gotten so off-the-charts rich in the last two or three decades, and that the middle class is not keeping up, that politicians may no longer be able to avoid talking about this issue. Oh, they will still try. Republicans in particular still scream about class warfare the minute anybody suggests making the wealthy pay a larger share of taxes. But Cain's radical 9-9-9 tax plan has been threatening to make tax fairness and income inequality one of the central issues of next year's campaign. Once people start figuring out that a 9% sales tax would hit the poor and middle class the hardest, while a 9% flat income tax rate would let the wealthiest pay far less in taxes than they are currently paying, they will start to understand the real implications of the Tea Party platform. And most people will not support such an extreme position.

Herman Cain has crossed the line. Herman Cain has brought some taboo subjects out into the open. But they are not the taboo subjects that everybody thinks they are. And contrary to Cain's own ridiculous counter-attacks, it is not the Democratic machine that is bringing him down. It is not some women of troubled circumstances who are making him the victim of some kind of feminist crusade. It is not that people will do anything to keep a businessman out of the White House (although the last time we had a businessman in the White House, which was only three years ago, that didn't work out too well). No, the reason Herman Cain is going down is because he is upsetting the apple cart by taking some pretty radical ideas a little too far outside of the electorate's comfort zone. And it would be a shame if Cain were forced out by scandal so early in the campaign, because Cain has been making an important contribution to the public debate by giving voice to ideas that a lot of people find very powerful, and that deserve to be held up to scrutiny. The public, no matter what their position on these issues, ultimately gets cheated when an important player like that is taken out of the game for a personal foul, instead of being tested on the merits of his arguments.

(Spencer Platt/Getty photo: Cain accuser Sharon Bialek)

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