At a moment when America faces hard choices and perhaps hard times, the presidential election campaign has largely degenerated into a vicious squabble whose poisonous effects are likely to be felt for years to come.
The nastiness has itself become the focus of debate: Who's the meanest of them all? Predictably, most Democrats point fingers at the Republicans and vice versa. In the blogs and in the more traditional media, liberal commentators accuse Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin of waging a campaign based on personal attacks and veiled appeals to bigotry, and whipping up their supporters into a frenzy of hate. Meanwhile, most conservative commentators assert that the lion's share of the negativity comes from Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) supporters. But in fact, there is plenty to go around.
There's no question that in recent weeks, most of the overt attacks have been from Republicans. While some claims of lynch-mob conduct at McCain-Palin rallies are vastly exaggerated, with one or two ugly outbursts magnified into a blanket charge, the ugliness is real—some of it coming from people associated with the campaign.
The other day, Virginia GOP chairman Jeffrey M. Frederick told McCain volunteers in a pep talk that Obama and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden "both have friends that bombed the Pentagon"—referring to Obama's connection to former Weather Underground terrorist William Ayers. The repeated invocation of Obama's middle name, Hussein, has troubling overtones, as well.
Meanwhile, on many right-wing Web sites, Obama is everything from Hitler to a secret Communist to a Muslim mole. One bizarre rumor alleges that his memoir Dreams from My Father was ghostwritten by Ayers.
But does the current Republican edge in anger and negativity reflect superior Democratic virtue, or is it more related to the fact that the McCain-Palin campaign is struggling and lagging badly in the polls? Think back to September, when it appeared that the wave of Palin-generated enthusiasm might carry the Republican ticket to the White House. The outpouring of rage from the left was downright scary at times.
Comedienne Sandra Bernhard assailed Palin as a "turncoat" in a foul-mouthed rant at a Washington, D.C., theater; she reportedly suggested that Palin would be raped by black men if she dared to enter Manhattan. (Bernhard seemed to confirm this comment to the Daily News, but later denied it.) Some self-styled feminists hurled misogynist invectives, such as "pornographic centerfold"; a few posters on left-wing blogs vented obscenely violent fantasies about doing Palin harm. She was accused of everything from banning books to faking her own pregnancy to cover for her teenage daughter.
Bring up the fact that nastiness and paranoia in politics are a two-way street, and you will be blasted—by both sides—for the crime of moral equivalency. Of course there isn't always a precise equality between the two camps. Yet the bottom line is that neither side is without sin, and both are eager to throw stones.
In part, the hypocrisy stems from the sincere conviction that one's own hatred and fear are justified because the other side really is evil: Palin would usher in an American Taliban; Obama is a friend to terrorists. (By the way, it is appalling that so many mainstream liberals were willing to embrace the unrepentant Ayers—but it's hardly better for mainstream conservatives to "pal around" with Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, who once plotted to murder his fellow Americans and more recently counseled gun owners to shoot federal agents in the head.)
Many people who are tired of the mudslinging can't wait for the election to be over. But Nov. 4 is unlikely to bring much relief. The dogs of war are loose, and they won't be easy to leash. If, as seems likely, Obama is elected, a large number of people on the right will see him as a stealth radical who won thanks to media bias and rampant voter fraud. If McCain pulls off a surprise upset, at least as many people on the left will blame racism, Republican dirty tricks or both—and some will regard the results as proof that the right-wing cabal behind Bush will never let go of power. Either way, a substantial minority of Americans will see themselves as living under an illegitimate and evil regime.
And that's more frightening than the economic crisis.
Cathy Young is a reason contributing editor. A version of this article originally appeared at Newsday.