By Donella Meadows
–November 10, 1988–
The morning after the election I woke up feeling bruised all over.
The networks were being celebratory and conciliatory, appropriate for the day when the nation has to come back together again. Dukakis was unemotional (no surprise) and gracious. Bush was saying nice things about him, finally. The pundits were drawing the obvious lessons: 1. Negative campaigns work. 2. The proper response to a smear is immediate, forceful retaliation.
Under a gorgeous dawn sky, through the beneficent mist of a morning warm for November, I trundled hay down to the sheep pasture and simmered.
How can I acknowledge as my leader a man who has mocked my beliefs, dismissing them with a sneer as “the L-word”, as if they were obscene?
How can I respect a President who came to power without respecting the truth or the voters?
How can I face another election run by people who think that negative campaigns work?
The sheep munched peacefully. I agonized for my country.
A negative, dishonest campaign may win, but it leaves deep wounds. The candidates not only discredit each other, they discredit the political process. A government that emerges from muck has not earned respect or cooperation or loyalty. Maybe it will do so, but maybe the cynicism it used to win power has penetrated too deeply. Maybe the trust that holds us together in that mysterious unity of purpose called a nation has been too badly abused. Negative campaigns whip up differences, hatreds, and fears. Someday, like Lebanon or Haiti, we could fall apart.
I gave the unconcerned sheep a bitter recitation of the Yeats poem:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” I have lived through the pain of Vietnam and the disillusion of Watergate. The passionate intensity of the worst, the lack of conviction of the best have persisted in this country far too long.
Now I’ve even lost hope in free elections. We don’t choose a leader anymore, we choose a set of hired image-makers. They pull our strings and punch our buttons with diabolical skill. Within six weeks they can change our minds about California raisins or George Bush or anything else they want us to buy.
Trudging back up the hill I wondered what we could do if we chose to learn from this election not that negative campaigns work, but that negative campaigns are intolerable. Suppose we decided to take back our country.
We’d give equal amounts of campaign funding and TV time, paid for by public funds, to all candidates. We’d forbid private campaign contributions. A candidate shouldn’t win just because he or she can raise money and shouldn’t be beholden to contributors. We all know that. We would control or eliminate political polling.
We’d insist that the media carry out their democratic duty in exchange for the privilege of their freedom. Their duty is to keep the information stream clean and fair. No 20-second sound bites manipulated by image-makers. Frequent and full presentations of each candidate’s actual record. Insistence that the candidates explain those records.
A bipartisan set of referees could be empowered to call fouls and set distorted facts straight. If Bush proclaims himself an environmentalist, if Dukakis denies being a liberal, someone should counter those claims with factual histories immediately afterward, in the same forum, with the same audience.
Televised debates should be run by the League of Women Voters or some other neutral party that knows what a debate is. No partisan audiences cheering as if they were at a football game. Questions from ordinary citizens. Candidates responding to each other directly. No commentary afterward telling us what we should think. No one posing the question “who won?” or trying to answer it.
The campaign should be shorter. All polls should close at the same time. The electoral college should be replaced with a simple popular vote, so Texans aren’t more important than Vermonters.
We’ve been saying these things for years. The question is whether we’ve slid far enough in the direction of demagoguery to be angry enough to act on them.
I was angry enough that morning, though I wasn’t sure at whom. The campaign handlers? The media? My fellow citizens? Myself? I do believe that people get the government they deserve, but I don’t think I deserve George Bush. I will be responsible, though, if there’s another sordid campaign like this one and I haven’t spoken out. If I want sheep I have to shovel manure. If I want democracy, I have to keep insisting on it.
By the time I came in for breakfast I had made two resolutions. One was to write this column. The other was to write my Congressman and Senators, again and again and again, until there’s some serious campaign reform.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988