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It's U.S. midterm election season and the silliness would be fun to watch were it not so scary.

Control of the Senate is on the line and Congress is facing a host of deadly serious issues, from Ebola and the Islamic State to the twin ticking debt bombs of Medicare and Social Security. But on the campaign trail, disease and terrorism are only mentioned as bogeymen to paint opponents as weak and incompetent, while the national debt has fallen off the radar altogether.

Ditto for climate change, immigration reform and even Obamacare, President Barack Obama's once hated health-care law that Republicans used to call an existential threat to liberty itself.

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Debating complex issues is mentally taxing on candidates and voters alike. And there's always those facts that get in the way of your talking points. So, why get bogged down in all that?

Instead, control of the Senate could come down to where voters stand on Pat Roberts's recliner, Bruce Braley's hate-on for chickens, and whether Mark Begich used a stunt double in an ad that purported to show the helmeted Alaska Democrat looking cooler than cool riding a snowmobile.

Mr. Roberts, a 78-year-old Republican from Kansas, is such an inhabitant of the Washington bubble that he acknowledged earlier this year not even owning a house in the state he has represented in Congress since 1980. He stays at a donor's place when he visits. "I have full access to the recliner," Mr. Roberts joked.

That quote has been campaign gold – for his opponent.

In Iowa, the top U.S. egg-producing state, Democrat Bruce Braley threatened a neighbour with a "litigious situation" if her chickens continued to roam onto his vacation property. He was also videotaped calling a veteran GOP senator "a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school."

Slagging farmers and chickens is never good politics in the Hawkeye State.

That such incidents have come to dominate campaigns, however, reveals the recent preponderance of "oppo" (short for opposition research) in U.S. elections. While digging up dirt on your opponents is as old as politics itself, oppo has evolved into an industry unto itself and turned campaigns into non-stop "gotcha" operations.

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The Nov. 4 midterms mark the first time U.S. voters will go to the polls since the creation of parallel and deep-pocketed Republican and Democratic organizations devoted entirely to conducting opposition research. American Bridge was founded in 2012 to help Democrats, while America Rising was formed a year later to aid Republicans in unearthing unsavoury tidbits about their opponents. That's on top of the oppo staff working for individual candidates.

Oppo staff typically leak any dirt they find to established media outlets, which happily make hay with "scoops" they don't have the time, staff or money to uncover on their own. Oppo-generated dirt takes over the news cycle until the next batch of dirt is uncovered.

Opposition research occasionally reveals flaws or actions that speak volumes about a candidate's fitness for office. But it usually involves minor faux pas that are blown out of proportion. Yet, it's often what drives campaign narratives.

Americans have never voted for candidates based on their IQs. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835: "I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run."

As candidates rely more and more on oppo to win elections, however, campaigns border on the farcical. It's great for The Daily Show, but it doesn't inspire confidence that the most powerful nation in the world (for now) can govern itself like an adult.

Coupled with what political scientist Francis Fukuyama calls the "reciprocal altruism" and "gift exchange" that goes on in Congress – donations are made expecting that the favour will be returned during the legislative process – and the prognosis for what claims to be the world's oldest democracy is not good.

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"The American state has been 'repatrimonialized' in much the same way as the Chinese state in the Later Han dynasty, the Mamluk regime in Turkey … and the French state under the ancien régime," Prof. Fukuyama warns in Political Order and Political Decay. "The decay of American politics will probably continue until some external shock comes along to catalyze a true reform coalition and galvanize it into action."

Until then, we will laugh, and cry.

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