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The Globe and Mail

Taking cue from conventions, democracy buried by untruths in U.S. election

Demonstrators wear masks of U.S Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama at a march during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina September 6, 2012. \


The American presidential election is playing itself out pretty well as the two parties' conventions indicated they would. Democracy-wise, it leaves something to be desired.

I was first fascinated by the obvious similarities between the two extravagant party spectacles. Both, for example, presented the spouses of their candidates as credible sources on their husbands' fitness to be president. To paraphrase America's greatest Marxist, I wouldn't vote for a party that treated me that stupidly.

Both gave credence to Hannah Arendt's world-weary maxim that "truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues," though the Democrats' untruths were more in the nature of conventional electioneering evasions, distortions and exaggerations while the Republicans have embraced a qualitatively new form of politics.

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An equally-riveting competition was to see who could exclaim more fervently that America was the greatest, most exceptionalistic country in the world and who could more piously ask G-d's blessing for their convention, their country, and above all for beating the bejeebers out of their rivals in November. I'd say the first was a dead heat but the Republicans won the second hands-down, the Dems – believe it or not – initially having failed to mention G-d in their program at all.

But there were also, of course, significant differences between the two brouhahas. The theme of the Democratic bash was the lofty " NO, WE COULDN'T AND WE WON'T NEXT TIME EITHER." Honest, if not motivating. Still, let me say in a purely non-partisan way that their three days probably saw more thrilling oratory than has been heard since Gladstone and Disraeli graced the British House of Commons some time back. Check out YouTube and be inspired by Lilly Ledbetter (see the Fair Pay act), Sandra Fluke (see Rush Limbaugh), Governor Deval Patrick, and not least Congressman John Lewis.

Mr. Lewis was an original 1961 black Freedom Rider, routinely beaten to a pulp by the forces of law 'n order in the deep south who were determined to make sure no blacks ever voted in their 'hood. He is not amused that his country is racing back to the past in the form of voter suppression laws so far passed by no fewer than 19 state governments. These will make it harder for some Americans to vote in November by, for example, demanding they produce ID that not all have.

There are some common themes here. Every one of these state governments is Republican. Five are key battleground states that might well determine the outcome of the election. All those whose access to the ballot box might be restricted are potential Democratic voters – racial minorities, the poor, the elderly, students – many of whom don't have passports or drivers' licenses. And the number of fraudulent voters against whom this legislation was deemed necessary in recent decades? Barely any. The state of Pennsylvania, for example, which passed such a law, says "the parties are not aware of any in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania."

At their convention, Republicans proudly explained why it's necessary in the name of democracy to make voting more difficult for those who might vote against them. Republican-style democracy, it turns out, is a privilege not a right, especially when it comes to their mortal enemies.

For their part, the Democrats were simply magnificent in their passionate support of equal rights for women and gays, whose votes they desperately need; in their bellicose patriotism that only begins with the assassination of an unarmed Osama Bin Laden; in their shameless pandering to the Jewish vote; and in their unconditional support for their brave troops.

Of course, there were a few marginal subjects that just couldn't be squeezed into three days: death by droning, the increasing economic gap between whites and blacks, global warming, the untimely Nobel Peace Prize, the 16 million children under 18 living in poverty, the lost war on drugs, raging unemployment, the National Rifle Association, the incarceration rate, the vast power of lobbyists, the sky-high cost of the campaign and who's paying, President Obama's choice of advisors, Guantanamo, the military challenge to China in Asia, the militarization of the American presence throughout Africa, Central and South America, and other secondary issues.

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As for the Republican jamboree, it was a fact-checker's utopia and a sane mortal's dystopia. As Romney pollster Neil Newhouse proclaimed, "We're not gonna let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers." This proved to be among the few facts ever spoken. When a rare truth was uttered, such as Mr. Newhouse's boast or Republicans' open pride in their voter suppression laws, it was terrifying. When a rare sensible word was heard – we must care for the vulnerable – it was hypocritical. For Republicans, reality is a hostile foreign country.

In this blissful make-believe universe, there is no domestic problem that can't be solved by further tax cuts on the 1 per cent and no foreign problem that can't be fixed by invading some country or other. Beyond that, Republican policy can be summed up in that courageous precept of American democracy, "Don't ask, don't tell."

If you weren't paying attention you'd have thought you'd stumbled on a revival rally of the Flat Earth Society. If you did pay attention, you knew you had. Huge numbers of Republicans believe Mr. Obama is an anti-American African-born Muslim socialist, evolution is an anti-American anti-Christian fraud, global warming is an anti-American anti-capitalist hoax, and birth control is, well, just anti-American.

Delegates couldn't get enough of what conservative commentator David Brooks called hyper-individualism.

Just look at Paul Ryan, the Republican's real hero. The party can barely stomach Mr. Romney, either his serial opportunism or his pathetic bungling. But Mr. Ryan is their kind of guy, with absolutist radical convictions on both economic and social issues – a rudimentary social safety net constitutes socialism, no abortions even in cases of rape or incest – as well as the world's fastest marathon runner. He is the party's revered policy guru whose nomination speech was a typical tissue of lies repeatedly exposed before his oration, as every fact-checker in America raced to point out.

No wonder Dick Cheney says he "worships the ground Paul Ryan walks on". Who wouldn't? Mr. Ryan's vaunted Roadmap for America's Future, in columnist Eric Alterman's vivid words, "constitutes a declaration of class warfare by the superwealthy against the rest of us".

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At the moment, the two parties remain more or less tied in public opinion. Despite everything, Romney-Ryan might well win in November. The prospect's enough to make you turn a blind eye to Barack Obama's first four years.

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