A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The White House

Friday, 2 April 2004, 23:20 | Category : Politics
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I’ve said more than once that in a democracy, you mostly get what you deserve. I guess the losing side would argue that isn’t true. But that’s missing my point. Somewhere in the last forty years, we prostituted ourselves electorally. We began lowering the cost of our votes, and stopped thinking seriously about that for or against which we were voting. We’ve allowed the major political parties to define campaigns in little snippets of catchphrases, thirty-second soundbites, and simplistic platitudes that perhaps stir fond memories of some half-perceived remembrance, but that, when stripped to their essence, say nothing. And the worst part of this is that we allow it to continue even when we know that’s what is occurring.

And in the process, we’ve cheapened the democracy that was supposed to be the Shining City On The Hill, so that now presidential campaigns, congressional campaigns, gubernatorial campaigns, are not assembled as a response to the desires and needs of a democratic people yearning to make a better world, but instead are packaged in the same manner as a box of breakfast cereal. This is on my mind because I was thinking today about presidential campaigns of the past. In 1960, the Democratic primary field included John Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson, Stuart Symington, and Hubert Humphrey, all well-regarded senators, and considered among the best our country could produce. In 1976, the Democratic field included Henry Jackson, Birch Bayh, Morris Udall, Fred Harris, Jimmy Carter, and Jerry Browne. In 1980, the Republican primaries saw Ronald Reagan, Howard Baker, George H. W. Bush, John Anderson, Robert Dole, John Connally, and Phil Crane. Most of these were generally considered to be leaders in at least some segment of their party. And as late as 1980, each party still had within it enough diversity to make the primary season something of value, a regional or national debate running several months, during which the ideas and proposals of each candidate were inspected, tested, and judged. Certainly there were political tricks and charades, but these were mainly tactical in nature, not something on which to base an entire campaign strategy. But then we began selling our votes to the ad man. Instead of reading the detailed campaign literature that was still being printed by the candidates, we began basing our votes on an onslaught of commercials, even allowing one candidate to completely shape our view of a competing candidate without ever questioning the message. Walter Mondale in 1984 painted Gary Hart as a man without a platform (“Where’s the beef?”), even though Hart’s platform was available in sometimes exhausting detail. But once the catchphrase hit the airwaves, nobody read Hart’s literature.

And where has it gotten us? Would anyone, even the most elephantine Republican, really argue that George W. Bush was the best and the brightest that the Republican Party could possibly put forth? I certainly wouldn’t make the case that John Kerry is the best the Democrats can do. But we’ve somehow produced a system that discourages the truly innovative, bold, and intellectual among us from even attempting the race. Think about it – if you had to put forth a group to be a new set of Founding Fathers, who would it be? Bush? Cheney? Kerry? Howard Dean?

I’m convinced there are people, men and women, “out there” who could return this country to a nation that dreamed about something bigger than stock markets, tax cuts, and who is offended by what religious display. But I wonder if the few of us who still vote would take the time to recognize them.

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