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Rules! There’s No Rules in an Election Fight!

The election is over, at last!! No more insulting ads, no more robocalls, no more terrorist candidates. Now we can focus on the issues that beset our country, and with luck and goodwill, work together to solve them. But I think we should not put this election behind us too soon.

It is tempting to dismiss all the name-calling and dirty tricks as politics as usual, forget it for four years and deplore it again when it rears its ugly head, but I would like to see us do something about it. After all, this election (and most elections) featured two candidates who disagreed in a major way about what the country should be doing. They interpreted the world differently.

For example, they disagreed on whether raising taxes on the rich will help or hurt the economy. It is appropriate that we should be choosing between people who disagree on the consequences of a particular course of action, and we should have the opportunity to watch them debate the issue. But it is totally inappropriate that the election comes down to schoolboy name-calling: He will raise your taxes. No I won’t. Yes you will.

Come on, folks. The proposals are out there on the table for all to see. Why can’t they agree on whose taxes will be raised or lowered by how much, and argue about whether that is a good idea, rather than arguing about facts that should not be debatable?

But ever since Lee Atwater, in a direct line to Karl Rove and his disciples, elections have instead been about fooling people. And that, to me, is as un-American as it gets.

I have two ideas that might help minimize such non-debates. First, once the candidates are selected, their representatives sit down with each other and figure out what factual matters they can agree on. It is such a waste of time to listen to the candidates rattle off how many times their opponent voted for or against this or that policy, only to have the other say, that’s not true. If they could agree ahead of time WHAT the facts are, they could spend their air time debating the MEANING of those facts. And the moderator would know when someone strays from the agreed-upon facts. OK, I admit it, this is wishful thinking.

On to the next idea. We could create a bipartisan ad commission whose job it is to view all political and phone calls and pass on their factual accuracy before they can air. All members must agree that the facts presented are correct and complete; the ads should reflect disagreements about interpretation and prediction, not matters of fact. For example, even though it is true that Obama voted against funding the troops in Iraq, this should not be allowed in a McCain ad as an argument that Obama does not support the troops, because McCain ALSO voted against funding the troops. Those votes were about the ad-ons, not supporting the troops, and both sides knew it. The debate was and should be about whether a deadline for withdrawal will make the situation in Iraq better or worse.

The other aspect of recent elections that I think should not be ignored is the dirty tricks. Each recent election has been peppered with stories about leaflets left in neighborhoods telling people that Republicans should vote on one day and Democrats on another, the clear purpose being to lower turnout of one group or another. Some people laugh at these stories, but I think they are despicable. If there is one principle that all democracies agree on, it is that the people should choose their government. Any attempt to prevent people from voting, or to get them to vote for or against a candidate because they have been led to believe something false about him (e.g., McCain had a black baby out of wedlock) is not just a dirty trick, it is a stab at the heart of democracy.

Elections are supposed to be about determining what the people want. Two (or more) candidates lay out their vision of the future and the policies they think will create it, and the people choose which they like better. But ever since Lee Atwater, in a direct line to Karl Rove and his disciples, elections have instead been about fooling people. And that, to me, is as un-American as it gets.

David Reingold is Foster Chair in Chemistry at Juniata College.