Joe Burns: Stealing democracy

Joe Burns

“Somebody’s been stealing my signs,” Anna said.

For three days in a row the South Yarmouth woman had placed a “vote for Obama” sign on her front lawn, and for three days in a row, when she woke up the following morning, the sign was gone.

Hers was the only Obama sign on a street that had several McCain signs, none of which had been disturbed.

The apparently politically motivated theft had left Anna frustrated. Her son, an eighth-grade student at the Mattacheese Middle School has been studying American government, but what he’s being taught by this sneak thief is in direct conflict with what he’s been learning in school.

“How can they just come on to our property and take them,” he asked his mother.

When the fine line between competition and conflict is crossed, perspective is lost. Witness the knuckleheads who taunted, threatened, and beat members of a New York family following a Falmouth Fourth of July fireworks display because they were perceived to be New York Yankee fans.

Politics, because of the stakes and the seriousness of the issues, is an even more fertile ground for such behavior and politicians aren’t always above planting the seeds of divisiveness. And once those seeds are planted they can quickly grow out of control.

Demonization and dehumanization are the ugly offspring of unbridled negativity. The more negative the campaign, the more personal the attacks, the more likely some people will find justification for the unjustified.

Demonization is the propaganda of war. But a political campaign isn’t a war. It is, at its highest level, a choice of ideas, a measuring of capabilities and an exercise in democracy. But rarely does it reach or sustain that level. And when it is treated like a war the results are predictable.

“God is on our side” is a typical rallying cry during a war. Its intent is to provide courage during a time of conflict. But its use — either directly or implied — in a political campaign is a claim of Divine endorsement and suggests an opponent’s lack of virtue. Falsely linking an opponent to terrorists, communists, socialists, or whatever “ist” is currently on the enemies list, also creates demonization through association and says that an opponent isn’t a valid political choice but a danger that must be stopped. And that is what we have seen during this current campaign.

At a time when someone at a political rally can think it acceptable to cry out for the assassination of an opposing candidate, stealing campaign signs seems quite benign. Swiping signs isn’t going to sway voters in a national election. It’s a childish act that seems to indicate that someone is so incensed by the sight of these signs that he (or she) feels compelled to remove them.

It is a foolish exercise fueled, possibly, by campaign rhetoric gone awry.

Anna wasn’t about to let some sneak thief rob her of her rights. She made her own Obama sign and put it on display. The next day, that too was stolen. Anna called the Yarmouth police. She said they told her she was the twenty-eighth person to report a stolen Obama sign.

But Anna said that won’t stop her. She said she’s made enough signs to last through to Election Day. In doing so, she’s taught her son and a stranger a lesson in democracy.

If you have an idea for a “Who Cares” column, you can call Joe Burns at 508-375-4936 or e-mail him at