By Donella Meadows
–October 6, 1988–
The members of the International Olympics Committee pointed out clearly and calmly, after they stripped Ben Johnson of his gold medal, that if they don’t enforce fair competition, the whole game will fall into ruin. Referees have to be present at every match to call fouls. Candidates who soup up their performance with drugs must be disqualified, for the sake of the athletes who do not, and for the sake of future games.
If only the IOC were running our presidential elections!
A drug in an athlete’s bloodstream is not different from a lie or distortion in a politician’s mouth. Both the drug and the lie deceive onlookers. They both falsify the record, and if they persist, they render records meaningless. They invite retaliation and drag the contest down to the lowest level. Political foul play, like athletic foul play, places short-term, venal, selfish purposes above what is long-term, communal, and immeasurably precious. In athletics the squareness of the game is undermined. In politics it’s the public trust and the fragile, wonderful idea called democracy.
Everyone I talk to is outraged at the dirtiness of this Presidential campaign. Everyone sees that the story of this election is not about issues, but about the fouls committed daily, repeatedly, and knowingly by both parties, but — let’s admit it — primarily by George Bush and Dan Quayle.
“It works — the polls show it,” say the campaign masterminds, abdicating their responsibility and throwing the blame onto us. A poll in the stadium would have shown that Ben Johnson won the 100-meter dash, too, but that’s not impressive when the observers have been deceived by drugs or by smoke and mirrors and lies.
Even polls are being used as a means of manipulation. Questions are phrased not to solicit opinion but to illuminate one issue, hide another, and confuse everyone. The Republicans publicized one of their polls in which two-thirds of New Jersey respondents said yes, they did wonder about the patriotism of Michael Dukakis because he vetoed a mandatory Pledge of Allegiance in Massachusetts schools.
Think what might have happened if the question had been different:
Should the government dictate the speech and behavior of teachers and students in schools?
Should American citizens be compelled to pledge their allegiance, or should they do so of their own free will?
Should Bush be disqualified from competition because he fails to understand a basic rule of the game — that the Constitution guarantees free speech?
The Republicans asked the question their way, of course. Why the Democrats didn’t ask one another way, I can only guess.
I guess that some Democratic campaign advisors are still trying to maintain a shred of decency. They still harbor a glimmer of belief that voters should be informed, not deceived, and that candidates should address intelligence, not emotions.
Having lost two elections while clinging to this belief, however, they waver, they give in, they slash back when slashed at. They do it badly, because they are not as thoroughly cynical as their opponents. They are still hesitant to destroy the dignity and purpose of the game just in order to win it. Without a referee or an IOC to help them, they are bound to lose — or to give up and play the game by the new, degraded rules.
It would take a candidate of enormous character to rise up from the slime of this campaign and describe what is happening with clarity and force. To expose the falsehoods so mercilessly that they lose all credibility. To deride empty symbols and mindless labels and shift the discourse back to the serious issues before the nation. Not the Pledge of Allegiance, but the possibility of a new relationship with the Soviet Union. Not the ACLU, but the way to bring the disenfranchised back into our society. Not which-weapon-do-you-favor, but corruption in the acquisition of all weapons. Not Boston Harbor, but a deep recognition of what it will take to restore and protect the whole environment, everywhere.
I yearn for such a candidate, and I don’t see him in Michael Dukakis. Dukakis strikes me as a decent, intelligent person, who is only beginning to understand how decency can be overwhelmed by the force of power-hunger. The main difference I see between him and George Bush is that Bush, also decent and intelligent, learned that lesson and surrendered to that force years ago.
This campaign makes me feel sad, and insulted, and frightened. It makes me fear that the combination of television, funhouse-mirror polls, entrenched greed, and total disrespect for the voters is enough to put an end to real democracy.
In the absence of referees and Olympic Committees, the only recourse I can see for those of us who love the game is to call the fouls ourselves, quickly, loudly and publicly, every time they happen. And to disqualify the cheaters ourselves, with our votes in November.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988