It is a dispiriting choice. Whether we wind up with George Bush or Michael Dukakis in the White House, I feel a sense of despair about the 1988 election far deeper than anything I have experienced during the last twenty years of presidential races. And I gather this feeling is widely shared.
Why has American politics become so banal and cowardly? What happened to the idea that a sovereign people could choose their leaders wisely, basing their decision on substantive debate, not on sound bites on the evening news and hokey television commercials?
The trend, I fear, cuts deeper than the weaknesses of this year’s candidates. Every campaign during the last two decades has seemed more trivial and mean spirited than the previous one. This year neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are willing to confront honestly the troubling conditions facing the nation or to pose hard choices that would provoke controversy. At its highest level, democracy is in a state of decay.
Is there still any hope of changing things? My own gloomy prognosis is that nothing significant is likely to reverse this degradation and restore real content to national politics as long as the initiative remains with the two major parties, which now monopolize political power. Both parties unleash plenty of fancy rhetoric about change, but in reality they have learned to live comfortably with a political system dominated by big money and television–an exclusionary arrangement that effectively silences competing voices with something real to say.
This leads me to entertain an unlikely proposition: probably the only hope for reviving a political dialogue that is truly in touch with reality lies in creating a third party–an independent party of renewal and reform.
Such a party would tell the truth about current conditions and articulate genuine ideas, not mere slogans. It would be frankly dedicated to destabilizing the status quo–denying a crucial margin of votes to both major parties but especially to the rightward-drifting Democrats. If it could establish itself as a fulcrum, a new party might force the Democrats and Republicans to bargain over serious issues they would prefer to avoid–from ending the cold war to restoring economic justice for all Americans.
The idea of a third party sounds far-fetched, I know, because there are so many formidable barriers to it. Given the deadening influence of television on modern politics, it would seem next to impossible for a third party even to get seriously launched. A political organization offering serious and provocative content, not just one-liners and maudlin symbols, would be ignored by the major media and dismissed as boring by the producers of the television news. Without free access to the voters through the broadcast media, a new voice in American politics would hardly be heard at all.
Still, disgust with the two major parties is widespread. Roughly half of the American electorate stays home from presidential elections and even more from off-year congressional races. Washington Post-ABC News polls conducted several years ago found that about 40 percent of the public would welcome an alternative political party on the scene–a sense of disaffection shared almost equally by Republicans and Democrats.
Who has heard much of anything about the two other genuine candidates running for president this year? Who even knows that they exist? Lenora B. Fulani is the candidate of the left-wing New Alliance Party. A psychologist from New York City, Fulani is campaigning as a champion of poor blacks and Hispanics; she is on the ballot in all 50 states. On the right, former Texas congressman Ron Paul is the Libertarian-party candidate.
Both Fulani and Paul are, I grant, on the far margins of political opinion, but both have interesting things to say about the American condition. Despite their vast ideological differences, these left- and right-wing candidates are in agreement on one major issue: each demands a stop to bloated defense budgets. Neither George Bush nor Michael Dukakis has dared touch that one.
But as Fulani’s campaign puts it, independent candidates are getting “whited out” by the major media. Instead, we are treated to daily snippets of George or Mike cleaning fish, kicking a soccer ball, driving a forklift, tossing a football, playing with guns, riding in a tank, saluting the flag–all the while talking endlessly about “leadership,” as though they understood what the word means.
The cause of the degradation of democracy may be crudely explained in three words: Money. Television. Gutless-ness.
In fact, the two major political parties are now primarily money machines–efficient at raising staggering amounts of cash by selling themselves to those looking to buy a chunk of political influence.
We expect this from the Republicans, the conservative party of old wealth and big corporations, but now the Democrats have learned how to play the money game, too. Dukakis’s extraordinary ability to raise tens of millions from heavyweight contributors–investment bankers, defense contractors and other high-tech manufacturers, real-estate developers, health- and insurance-industry officials–is one of the most disturbing things about the man. What will he owe these people?
Aside from presidential contests, the two-party rivalry is not nearly as significant as it’s made to appear. In Congress, for instance, only a handful of seats in the House of Representatives are truly contested each year, because most incumbents are treated by both parties as “safe seats.” The power arrangement resembles a shared monopoly, in which two companies have tacitly ceded territories to each other to avoid costly competition.
Furthermore, the permanent hierarchy of both parties is dominated at the top by a network of pricey Washington lawyers and lobbyists who represent business interests and collaborate with one another on lobbying the government–while pretending to be opponents. These inside players channel their corporate clients’ money to the elected politicians. In effect, everyone is on the same side.
Thus both parties are competing for the good opinion of the special interests, which always defend the status quo and resist change. As a result, on all the big issues, from taxation to the cold war, both parties hug the same center-right turf, with differences only in shading.
In the 1980s, Democrats and Republicans collaborated in dismantling the progressive income tax and in doubling the defense budget. The most corrupting influence of money, as many campaign aides have confided to me over the years, is that it inhibits the best politicians from articulating new, provocative ideas–anything bold enough to alarm the major sources of dollars.
Our two-party politicians are ensnared by money mainly because they are also trapped by television. While big money wants a political debate that is bland and conventional, television virtually ensures that this is what we will get.
First, any candidate who departs from the narrow center of what the media regard as “responsible” politics will be swiftly labeled as eccentric, then belittled (ask Representative Richard Gephardt or the Reverend Jesse Jackson what that’s like). Second, the steadily declining quality of TV news is pulling everyone else down with it to the lowest common denominator. Third, most of the big money in campaigns goes to buy television advertising–the thirty-second spots that are even more simplistic than the evening news. Gutlessness, in other words, is not just found among the politicians.
A few years ago, when Ronald Reagan was in his full glory, I optimistically believed that the major networks might eventually find the courage to take back control of their own news broadcasts–to turn their backs on the White House’s carefully staged theatrics and simply refuse to peddle video images that they knew to be lies.
But this year we have even bigger lies, such as George Bush sailing on Boston Harbor, pretending to be an environmentalist. In a broader sense, all the flag-waving this year by both candidates constitutes the big lie, too. Given the visual power of television, the correspondents’ ironic comments are not enough to counteract the vivid pictures.
I was dead wrong about the networks improving. Some of the reporters are doing tough stories, but the producers are more spineless and cynical than ever in their selection of what gets on the evening news. Given the bottom-line mentality of their corporate owners, the networks’ timid coverage will continue to get worse, not better. Can anyone imagine General Electric, the third-largest defense contractor in the country, instructing its subsidiary NBC to start getting tough with the presidential candidates?
The high-tech management of modern politics is closely patterned on the corporate marketing of commercial products on television–an elaborate system of consumer surveying and packaging that focuses almost exclusively on how to sell, not how to govern. The techniques of this system are as deceptive as those ads on television that portray automobiles as sleek panthers or jet airplanes.
Despite some honorable efforts, the print media seem to be overwhelmed and demoralized by the influence of the TV pictures. Newspaper coverage has lost its hard, inquiring edge, too, and accepts the empty slogan-mongering that substitutes for discussion of the real issues.
Indeed, political reporters–instead of providing the serious substantive content missing from TV news–have become obsessed with campaign technique. They write ad nauseam about the clever managers who manipulate issues and images to get the right buyer responses but hardly at all about the content of what they are selling.
In this environment, only a fool campaigns on complicated positions that may stir controversy. George Bush’s handlers understand this game a lot better than Michael Dukakis’s do. Dukakis has been reduced to running commercials attacking Bush’s managers.
In fact, this year the media have entered into a conspiracy of silence with both political parties–tacitly agreeing not to press the large and troubling questions about what the next president really intends to do.
Meanwhile, it’s an open secret in Washington–easily documented if reporters weren’t so lazy–that whatever party gets in intends to unveil the bitter medicine right after the election. The American public, I predict, is in for a shock next January, when it begins hearing about budget cuts and tax increases.
A new political party–free of commitments to big money and willing to take risks with public opinion–might be able to break up this game. The premise would be straightforward: to create a third force in both presidential and congressional politics that would probably never become large enough to attain power itself but could deny two-party candidates, especially Democrats, their self-satisfied arrangement.
By withholding the crucial margin of votes in close races, such an effort might at least halt the Democratic party in its rightward drift and force it to choose between its moneyed patrons and its core voters–blacks, union members, reform-minded citizens who want serious action on the environment, nuclear de-escalation and many other issues.
Such a party could fulfill the historic function of third parties in American politics–ventilating the debate with new ideas, laying down a progressive political agenda for the next generation.
What would such a party stand for? An aggressive economic program that restores a semblance of balance in the distribution of economic rewards by promoting worldwide growth and development. A dramatic decrease in military spending. A substantive attack on the environmental degradation of the planet. Reform of the financial system to stabilize it and to stop the voracious appetite for takeovers that bleed debtors and destroy good companies. A new global alliance based on growth and a shared sense of justice and universal human rights, not on the deadly, costly, outdated assumptions of the cold war.
The reform of politics itself, including a new definition of free speech that would give everyone a political voice in an age dominated by corporate media monopolies.
Reforming politics means, above all, guaranteeing access to television. If the networks and other video outlets were compelled to provide free airtime in specified time blocks, it would dramatically reduce the entry costs of politics and thus diminish the influence of the big money. European democracies provide this in different forms–candidates get equal, ample portions of TV time that can’t be chopped up into meaningless sound bites.
The political debate would still reflect human flaws. Some candidates are vapid; some are enthralling. You can’t legislate courage and honesty. But the point is, television’s monopoly would be broken up by such an open-access arrangement–and the politicians would be at least partially liberated from their dependence on both big media and big money.
The problem is obvious: if everyone gets free air time, then Ron Paul and Lenora B. Fulani and lots of other minor candidates get some, too. That opens the door for serious independent parties in America to challenge the shared monopoly of Republicans and Democrats; the political establishment is not about to experiment with free political competition–not while it has the money connections working for it.
So it’s a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Which must come first? The political reforms that would allow new voices to succeed or the new voices organizing to demand the reforms? A new political party would first have to invent itself and find ways to communicate to the broad public even if it were denied access to conventional media channels. It would somehow try to build enough support to shock both the political and the media establishment into taking it seriously.
The idea of starting a third party leads naturally to the people who have wrestled with the question for at least twenty years–black political activists and scholars. Indeed, if a new progressive party does spring up in Greider the next few years, it will doubtless be led by disaffected blacks. They would probably try to create outside the Democratic party what Jesse Jackson attempted inside: a multiracial coalition composed of blacks, union members, environmentalists, peace activists and others who feel the Democrats play them for fools–counting on their votes but not delivering on promises.
As Ron Walters, a political scientist at Howard University, says in his book Black Presidential Politics in America, the “hope and trust” politics that blacks have pursued within the Democratic Party has produced bitter disappointment. Furthermore, a lot of white people are beginning to discover the disenchantment that blacks have always felt.
“It used to be the third-party talk was coming from the younger, black-nationalist types,” Walters says. “But now you have this malaise with the Democrats among a whole segment of knowledgeable middle-class black voters, not just because of the way Jesse Jackson was treated, but because these people know how politics works, and they see how little the Democrats deliver for the black agenda. It’s going to be very difficult for any Democrat from now on to rev up the black voters unless they make a commitment to a substantive agenda.”
Still, black leaders, including Walters, have tried and failed several times to set up a third party in the last two decades, and they are wary about whether such an effort might succeed. Chuck Stone, senior editor and columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News and one of the earliest advocates of an independent black party, says, “There’s tremendous malaise in the black community. When I talk to teachers or lawyers, they are just disgusted–they can’t stand Dukakis, and they don’t like Bush, either–but they haven’t arrived at the answer. They just know something is wrong.”
A lot depends on events, of course. A great many Americans, white and black, are exasperated with the status quo. If the two-party establishment continues to ignore reality, my hunch is that sooner or later a lot of citizens will get angry enough to make their own politics.