In this modern era, in the United States, we often find ourselves, as voting adults, faced with a choice between the lesser of two evils. Take, for instance, the high-profile Senate race in Nevada where one of the most unpopular sitting elected officials in the nation, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, is neck and neck with someone whose only real selling point is that she’s – well, it’s simple: she’s not Harry Reid. I don’t mean to disparage Sharron Angle. I’m only saying that Nevadans don’t seem particularly high on her. Nevada independents and moderates – who usually decide general elections – are not rushing to vote for a woman who wants to abolish the Department of Education, privatize Social Security, and who recently told a radio station she believes she was called of God to run for the Senate. (It’s important for me to note here, especially given my unabashed belief in the importance of faith in public life, that I am not mocking or ridiculing Angle’s belief that God called her to run for the Senate. I am merely commenting on the effect her claim might have on her chances of eventually capturing Reid’s Senate seat. And I, as do most Christians, understand what she was probably trying to say, which is that she feels God’s will for her is to run for the Senate seat, win or lose. After all, many people feel, after long prayer, that God blesses their desires to be, say, a school teacher. I, as a matter of fact, believe God has answered my prayers in allowing me to use the talents he’s blessed me with in my own career. The prudence of making such a claim on the campaign trail is another matter entirely, and it’s one that, instead of making her the presumptive Senator-elect from Nevada, has made her “the lesser of two evils” in the minds of key Nevada voters.)
And then there are the Florida races where the negativity has sunk to new lows. The Miami Herald called the GOP primary for governor a “slugfest” in which the candidates’ negative ads are leaving a bad taste in voters’ mouths and inadvertently raising the prospects of the Democratic candidate winning the governorship. About the Senate race in that state, an August 2010 article by the Associated Press starts out this way: “The level of political discourse in the Democratic Senate primary boils down to: Your celebrity friends are low lifes.
Response: So’s your mom.” The article goes on to say that the two Democratic candidates’ positions on the issues that matter are basically the same. How sad that Democratic voters are forced into deciding between two adults who act like juveniles in middle school on the campaign trail!
The nastiness described above will help me illustrate what I refer to as the “biology of truth.”
Some truths have a biological advantage over other truths, do they not, just as some animals have serious advantages in nature over others? For example, it very well may be that Sharron Angle was called by God to run this race against Harry Reid. And certainly, we have no reason to believe Angle is lying when she says she thinks we need to get rid of the Department of Education. Likewise, the barbs the Florida Senate candidates lob at each other, one about the other’s mom, the other about one’s association with “low-life” celebrities, may also be true. But what good have all these truths done, both to the candidates themselves and to the larger public the candidates aim to serve? Which truths actually matter in a Senate race in which two candidates are vying for the same ideological space in the Senate chamber? Now, of course, mudslinging in political races is nothing new; people who lament the “increase” in partisanship in Washington forget, or never knew, that Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr over political and personal squabbles. And many presidential historians call the race to the White House of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams one of the most deeply partisan campaigns in modern history. Two book titles about the race – “America Afire” and “A Magnificent Catastrophe” – remind us that gutter ball campaigns are nothing new in America.
But that doesn’t make it right, nor does it mean we should settle for even truthful smear campaigns as the status quo in our election process. No one wants to feel as if they’re voting for the lesser of two evils when they drive over to the polls; what’s more, we don’t want people deciding against driving to the polls altogether, on account of the perceived worthlessness of the endeavor imbued on the process by the grown-up juveniles running for office.
What I’m trying to illustrate is that even if all that is said during the campaigns is true, truth is colored by context and lives or dies in an ecosystem depending on the truth’s particular biological advantage. In other words, we would be wise to remember that truth itself isn’t what matters, per se. It’s what kind of truth. Whether the truth is relevant; whether the truth actually contributes to knowledge and its wise use it is arguable that much of what is said in the Florida race, even if 100 percent true, is utterly irrelevant to the most important question: which of the two men is best qualified for office? Which of the two men will best represent his constituents? What’s lost in all the back-and-forth about each other’s mother and whether or not one of them has shady celebrity friends is which of the two has the strongest record of public service? Which of the two has proven to be a reliable, honorable public servant, to the extent that he should be trusted with even greater responsibility by his constituents?
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