Through a Looking Glass

WITH Thanksgiving at hand, we must count our blessings. Chief among them this election year is the end of a vapid and spiteful campaign season.

The political discourse has been empty, but not for a lack of "issues." There are always issues and we had them, ephemeral and inflated though they might have been. Lest we forget, we had the "Pledge issue," the "National Guard issue," a national debate over who was worse, Willie Horton or General Noriega, and other earth-shaking questions. All of them were centered around the nominees, rather than the views and policies they represented, and every one was hatched and nurtured in a TV studio.

More than half of our electorate chose not to vote this year--a shocking condemnation of our democracy. To bring them back in, symbols must be replaced with substance, and candidates must back their statements with compelling reasons, not ad hominem arguments. It is in this climate that liberal democracy will flourish, when the competition of ideas stimulates national reflection. One major roadblock to any kind of enlightened discourse is the prevalence of television ads as the primary conduit between the candidate and the public.

Considering the very real problems our country faces, this made-for-TV campaign seems almost criminal. But for every crime, there must be a perpetrator. After the fact, it has become fashionable to blame Vice President George Bush for using dirty tactics, or Gov. Michael S. Dukakis for being too weak in responding.

A few people point the finger at Ronald Reagan, as the pioneer of substance-less campaigning oriented to the little glass screen. And in a fit of self-flagellation, the media have even blamed themselves. In a democracy however, there are no excuses. We, the people, are the guilty ones, and we always get what we deserve.

THE effects of such insipid politicking have been obvious and immediate. The stock market has fallen more than 50 points since election day, as investors are unsure if the President-elect even has a policy to deal with the deficit. I must pinch myself to believe that throughout 12 months of the campaign, we did not force Bush to enunciate an economic and fiscal policy, or even, apparently, to think very seriously about one. Perhaps he'll find one in a fish belly while he's in Florida this week.

Even on Election Day, we could see reviewed the performances of presiden-polls in droves, and Mr. Nobody won not just a plurality but a slim majority of the eligible public's support. There are reasons aplenty for Americans to vote, but neither Bush or Dukakis supplied them. The reason many people did not go to the polls had nothing to do with the spiteful and negative tone surrounding the election. It had its source in the total artificiality of the issues on which the election turned.

Mainly, our focus was on the personalities of the candidates, not on the intellectual strengths of the viewpoints they represented. "Leadership" and "judgement" were bandied about, much was made of whether the candidates were "nice" or "interesting" people, "people like us." But it really doesn't matter if a President is a bore, or if he sleeps around, or if his children all like him. The President is not our friend. He is both our leader and our servant, and the only thing that matters is his effectiveness in the public interest.

The debates only worsened the problem, and increasing their number in the future is unlikely to refocus campaigns on the issues. Debates, like ads, overemphasize the personalities of the candidates. They seem to satisfy some primitive urge to see rivals go after each other man-to-man, and have all the farce and hoopla of a professional wrestling match.

A debate's intellectual challenge could be as easily supplied by any reporter with a tough question, and it should be, every day. Few things this year upset me more than when newspapers gave their campaign coverage to TV or entertainment critics, who reviewed the performances of presidential nominees a paragraph above those of ABC sitcom actors. The saddest thing of all is that these entertainment reviews were more insightful than the political commentary.

Slick television ads, whether negative or positive, have been instrumental in cheapening our political life. They are always focused on the personality of the candidate or his opponent. By their very nature, they are too short to offer any information of substance; instead they are usually designed to produce an unreasoned, emotional reaction.

In a presidential election, where name recognition is nearly universal and news coverage is unending, there is no justification for televised ads. They can tell us about nothing, except the skill of the media consultants who produced them. They serve only to muddle thought, to stir up rancor, to provide a false front for the failure to address the issues.

It will always be easier to manufacture symbols rather than substance, but to break the power of the image, we have only to break the power imagemakers. We have the authority to say how campaigns are run since the government gives each presidential candidate $40 million each. We should drastically lower the limits in campaign spending, particularly in regard to the use of television. At the very least, money won't be wasted on unproductive, distracting, nonsense.

As political candidates are weaned away from their media-masters, perhaps they will fall back on those old strangers--passions and issues. And when issues cease to be shams created by consultants, citizens will care about them again. When substance returns to our elections, so will the voters.