Opinion: Remember: American politics very imitative
It’s a better than even bet that in Massachusetts today there is more than one ambitious young Democratic candidate running for local office who is deliberately pronouncing the word “again” so that it rhymes with “a pain.” Why, you logically ask? Because that’s how the martyred John F. Kennedy pronounced “again.” American politics and campaigns are frankly imitative.
Half a century ago, in 1968, then-presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, discarded his suit jacket, rolled up his shirtsleeves and waded into the campaign crowds who came to see him. The unspoken message was clear: This leader in shirtsleeves was a regular guy, unpretentious, ready to go to work and even, if pushed too hard, prepared to defend, mano a mano, the less powerful against the Rich Bully.
How many times have we seen the candidate in her campaign TV spot listening attentively to children or to retirees signaling to us voters that this candidate truly cares about the next generation and also honors the older generation? Then there are the obligatory images of the candidate of the people (who may actually be on his way to a high-number fundraiser with hedge fund managers) smiling comfortably and respectfully in the company of blue-collar workers in hard hats or firefighters or cops; I’m a regular Joe at home with ordinary Americans who, unlike me, actually shower after work instead of before.
Why do we see these canned and unoriginal political TV spots year after year? Because they work and politics is imitative. That may be insulting to us voters’ intelligence, but it is usually not a threat to the nation. What can be a threat to the nation and to our public life is when a candidate runs and wins and becomes a major national force the way that US Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, R-Wis., did when on Feb. 9, 1950, he told a Republican party dinner in Wheeling, West Virginia, “I have here in my hand a list of 205 … a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy at the State Department.” In Salt Lake City, McCarthy’s number of communists would be 81; in Reno, Nevada, it was 57.
So politically powerful did McCarthy become leading the Red Scare that Dwight Eisenhower, a national hero, failed during the 1952 campaign in Milwaukee to defend publicly his close friend and Army chief of staff General George Marshall — who served as secretary of state and received the Nobel Prize for authoring the Marshall Plan that rebuilt a war-devastated Europe and stopped Soviet aggression — after McCarthy had falsely accused Marshall of “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”
Baseless charges and unfounded accusations of treason were Joe McCarthy’s M.O. Nobody was ever arrested for treason. The guilt of no alleged spy was ever confirmed, but dozens of would-be Joe McCarthys ran as his disciples and imitators across the country, and too many won ruining the lives of American citizens with vicious unsubstantiated charges. McCarthy made cowards of all but a handful of U.S. senators. Sound a little familiar to America 2019?
If anyone still wants to know why the 2020 presidential campaign matters so greatly, just understand what the reelection of Donald trump would mean to American political life and to the hundreds of ambitious young politicians who would rationally, if not admirably, conclude, “I see. That’s how you run and you win.” American politics is, do not forget, highly imitative.
— Mark Shields is a columnist with Creators Syndicate.