January 30th, 2004

New Hampshire Primary: The Best and Worst of Politics

A version of this blog post appeared in the Hamilton College Spectator (January 30, 2004), in the Utica Observer-Dispatch (February 3, 2004), and on SOLOHQ.com (February 5, 2004), and was noted on the Hamilton College Web site (February 3, 2004).

With 11 other Hamilton students this past weekend, I volunteered for Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign in Keene, NH. Listening to the Democratic candidates in person and their supporters’ questions, mixed with many personal conversations, including phone and front-door solicitations, led me to some general reflections on American politics.

First, just because you like political science doesn’t mean you’ll like political activism. In the former, one debates whether Saddam was a threat or whether we could have contained him. In the latter, one lambastes either the absence of weapons of mass destruction or the people lambasting that absence.

Second, slogans trump substance. Howard Dean declares himself “pro-education.” John Kerry asks, “If George Bush wants to make foreign policy an issue in this campaign, I say, ‘Bring it on!’” Al Sharpton refers to “weapons of mass deception.” Yet while these sound bites generate applause, they say nothing. Who, after all, could be anti-education in the broadest sense? We may laugh, but we learn nothing about a candidate’s positions.

Third is the job known as “visibility.” It’s as simple as it sounds: you stand in a well-trafficked public place waving a big sign featuring your candidate’s name. Yet while such advertisements may quickly inform passersby of a candidate’s relative popularity, they appeal to a herd mentality: vote for Dean because everyone else is.

Fourth, asking volunteers why they support a candidate or why they abhor Bush or how Kerry differs from Dean reveals an uninformed populace. Typical answers cite not political positions but personalities.

Fifth, supporters criticize their opponents more than they promote their own candidate. On one particularly flagrant occasion, while I took a break to read a book for my history class titled Inside Hitler’s Germany, one man asked me, “Reading about Bush, huh?”

Sixth, presidential campaigning requires the skin of an oak tree, the excuses of a Hamilton student pleading for an extension on a final paper, and a lockjaw smile. Remember, though, that we all have skeletons in our closets, and they’d tumble out if scrutinized by every reporter across America.

In the end, I’m glad I went, because I experienced politics at its best—no place is busier politically than Iowa or New Hampshire during caucus and primary season—and politics at its worst: mud-slinging and anti-intellectualism. Of course, I can say these things only because I harbor no political aspirations.

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