Why has this election season been so dysfunctional and disturbing?

As you may have noticed, Tuesday is Election Day. Like most elections, this one has been laden with sound and fury, but embarrassingly short on sense.

In many ways, however, it has been the most dysfunctional, dissociative and downright disturbing of any in modern times. Parsing the current public discourse is not unlike listening to a crazy man talk to himself on the bus. You know there are probably some nuggets of truth and relevance somewhere in the babble, but the overall narrative is thoroughly divorced from reality.

Much of the responsibility for this can be shouldered by a mass-media culture that prefers to promote false narratives for sport and profit, rather than report ignorance and hysteria for what it is. We are told by the talking heads that Republicans are on a roll that will sweep out the failed Democratic experiment of the last few years, and that their vanguard consists of the Tea Party, an exciting and important new force in our political culture. We are presented with book burnings, angry anti-mosque mobs and nonexistent immigrant crime waves as the pre-eminent issues of the day. We are told that the Democrats are in trouble because they spend too much, have strayed too far left, blah, blah, blah, blecch.

Gag me with a teleprompter. This tired old narrative is less true now than ever. In fact, the Democratic Party's approval ratings have been 10 points better than Republicans in some polls, with the Tea Baggers lagging even further behind. With regard to Obamacare, the "socialist" bugaboo that provides one of the biggest talking points for the torch-and-pitchfork crowd, the majority of people declaring dissatisfaction with it cited a concern that it did not go far enough in making health care available to everyone.

How about that "failed" economic stimulus? The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and other independent analyses have established that the stimulus generated somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 million jobs. In fact, a primary reason unemployment remains so high is that the stimulus did not go far enough. How about "liberal" spending? The same sort of independent analysis recently concluded that the Republicans' Medicare prescription-drug scam, literally a midnight mugging of the taxpayer passed during the darkest depths of the Bush years, will cost more than the health-care law, the Wall Street bailout and the stimulus combined.

But it's too easy to blame the media for such mass misunderstanding. Despite the electorate's apparent resistance to the Republican agenda, the Grumpy Old Party has consistently polled 10 points ahead of the Democrats in generic ballot questions. In Arizona, our governor's lack of competence and integrity have made her the national laughingstock of this election season, yet she has continued to poll comfortably ahead of her sensible, experienced, eminently qualified opponent, having sewn up the idiot vote and the hate vote early on and coasted ever since.

What gives? Are we insane? Masochistic? A bit nihilistic, perhaps? Syndicated columnist Eugene Robinson chalked it up to a collective temper tantrum, prompted by impatience over the pace of reform and economic recovery. I wish that's all it was, but I fear the problem goes much deeper than that—it is the refusal of our citizens to civically engage on a level that allows them to see the daisies through the horseshit. Instead, they see immigration avenger Jan Brewer posed as Rosie the Riveter on a billboard and think, "Yeah, that's my girl!" Never mind that the Wicked Witch of the Southwest and her troop of flying monkeys are in contravention of virtually everything for which the Rosie icon ever stood. Such historical perversion is easy when you're dealing with voters who are largely clueless as to the provenance and portent of current events, let alone historical lessons.

The whole overblown Tea Party phenomenon is neither new nor inherently important. These are the same people who have been posting dim-witted, fear-mongering, patently false and, yes, often racially motivated claptrap on comment threads for many years now. The only things that have changed are 1) they're shouting louder than ever because there's a black socialist Muslim terrorist in the White House; and 2) the media have suddenly decided to report their ravings as somehow relevant. I'll wager that the Tea Party's brief blip of "success" in this year's primaries will ultimately cost the Republican Party more than it will benefit.

The only relevance of this movement lies in the possibility that it signifies that our noble experiment in representative democracy is no longer creeping toward ignorant and hysterical fascism; it has broken into a trot.

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