The race for Texas governor offers a chance for substantial debate on policy. The leading Republican, Greg Abbott, is for limited government on economic matters, supports greater restrictions on abortion and is more conservative on social issues. The leading Democrat, Wendy Davis, is for somewhat more expansive government than Texas now has, favors abortion rights, and is less conservative on social issues.
But campaign coverage has instead focused on the biography of Davis and the comments of a singer supporting Abbot. Davis is being attacked for discrepancies in the biography she put forward and for her behavior in a marriage that ended in divorce. Abbot is being assailed for the incendiary and reprehensible comments of Ted Nugent. These disputes do not tell us much, if anything, about how either candidate would perform as governor, or the efficacy of the policies they have proposed. The candidates’ previous experience in the offices of Attorney General (Abbott) and state senator (Davis) seems far more relevant. To be sure, both candidates seem to have invited these controversies; Davis by making her biography a central part of her campaign and Abbott by welcoming Nugent’s support, not for his understanding of policy, but because of his celebrity.
The focus of the campaign, however, reveals much about modern politics. It demonstrates that much of political debate is not about what policy objective is preferable or what results a candidate’s agenda will have. It is instead about making citizens feel comfortable about themselves and indeed morally superior to others.