Lee Atwater, dying of cancer, apologized for attack ads and political warfare that pressure good people to abandon public service to those with thicker skins and harder hearts.
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(VIDEO TEXT) — In 1991, Lee Atwater—former Republican National Committee Chairman and a pioneer in political attack ads—was dying from a brain tumor. Years earlier, in an off-the-record interview, Atwater explained the so-called “southern strategy” that allowed Republicans to win the votes of racists without sounding racist themselves, by making the racial messages abstract.
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger’… By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like ‘forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff…’ ”
Atwater devised the famous attack ad for the 1988 presidential campaign that blamed candidate Michael Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts, for the rape and assault of a white couple by Willie Horton, a black convicted murderer who escaped from a weekend release program run by the Massachusetts prison system. Atwater said of Dukakis that he “would strip the bark off the little bastard” and “make Willie Horton his running mate.” Ironically, the attack ad blamed Dukakis for a prison program that had been initiated by his predecessor, a Republican governor.
On another occasion, Atwater planted a fake reporter at a press conference to embarrass a Congressional candidate by asking him about his teenage struggle with depression. Three years later, facing death at only 40 years old, Atwater sought spiritual peace, writing apology letters to Dukakis and other victims of his political dirty tricks.
In a final article for Life magazine a month before he died, Lee Atwater wrote:
“My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: A little heart. A lot of brotherhood… I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty… It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don’t know who will lead us… but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul.”
Atwater had called his work “political warfare.” Political warfare drives out good people who don’t want to harm others nor be harmed—so they abandon public service to those with thicker skins and harder hearts. Sadly, voters around the world have come to believe that political party warfare is a necessary evil in selecting public officials—a method that might best be called “selection by combat.”
There is, however, a time-honored alternative: selection by lottery also called sortition or lottocracy. Americans are familiar with the process because that’s how we select juries. Athens, Greece—the first democracy—chose juries and most of its other public officials by lottery, thus avoiding selection by combat.
After selection by lottery, legislators assemble in a peaceful atmosphere. After competitive elections, legislators assemble along the line of scrimmage, ready to resume the brutal competition. They focus not on the issues, but on seeking advantage for the next election. With the lottery system, there is no next election…nor political parties. Political parties were invented for the purpose of winning elections.
George Washington, the first American president, predicted in his farewell address that political parties
“are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”
One might question whether the proposed alternative—election by lottery—is relevant to America, because it was developed in ancient Athens; an imperfect democracy in which men without property, women, and slaves were not allowed to participate. But that exactly matches the American democracy of George Washington’s time—men without property, women, and slaves were not allowed to participate.
However, in the two centuries since the founding of the American republic, we have evolved. We can continue to do so.