America's Downsized Politics

At a 1993 press conference, when Teresa Heinz-Kerry declined to run for her late husband's Pennsylvania Senate seat, she explained, "The best ideas for change unfortunately no longer come from political campaigns." She added: "Today, political campaigns are the graveyard of real ideas and the birthplace of empty promises."

Forgoing a Senate race, Heinz-Kerry instead took the reins of the Howard Heinz Endowment and became a board member of the Vira I. Heinz Endowment. Under her leadership, the foundations has supported smart environmental and women's programs.

Heinz-Kerry's statement was prophetic. Now more than at any time in recent memory, too many politicians -- and their campaigns -- lack the courage to debate, let alone adopt, big ideas in this country. As a result, America has a downsized politics of excluded alternatives. And, as Heinz- Kerry argued, we've lost sight of big ambitions.

Polls, 30-second attack ads and partisan sniping often drown out serious policy debates. The mainstream media shoulders a lot of the blame as well. Too often, the press, enthralled with scandals, fails to cover ideas and issues. The media is instead obsessed with the politics of style -- the candidates' hair, clothes, favorite sports, vacation plans, and, of course, wives. After campaign debates, reporters descend on so-called Spin Alleys, where consultants dissemble, and journalists lap up the PR offensives.

In a December New York Times op-ed, Paul Krugman pointed to the problem when he urged reporters to reject "political histrionics" and focus instead on the candidates' records and policies. So far, too few reporters have failed to listen to him.

Finally, there's the Internet, which fueled Howard Dean's rise and empowers progressives in exciting ways. The web is a bubbling stew of big ideas and low gossip, and the political blogs I've started reading (Micah Sifry at Iraqwarreader.com, for example) actually have a fairly meaty conversation going.

Yet many of the most popular sites, like Drudge, Wonkette or Gawker attract eyeballs by plying gossip above all, eschewing serious debates about politics and policy.

One big (and under-reported) story is that America's communities are laboratories for progressive reform. Over the last few years, for instance, The Nation's "What Works" series has called attention to creative programs that have built affordable housing and reduced urban poverty; neighborhood initiatives that attacked inner-city blight; and a living wage movement that improved the lives of thousands of workers. Also reported on were victories of clean money and clean elections in Maine and Arizona, and Maine's passage of a universal health care bill, which is putting pressure on other states to follow suit.

In countless cases, the unmet social needs of the American people are more extreme than in other rich industrialized nations. But, if you listen to our candidates, read our papers or watch our television, you wouldn't hear a lot about the tragically high rates of child poverty; the desperation of our inner cities; the absence of effective mass transit; or the lack of decent health care and housing for millions.

In 2004, the election could be a testing ground in which to clarify the stark choices facing this country. But where is the millennial equivalent of Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, Truman's Fair Deal, and Johnson's Great Society?

Don't these times cry out for an electoral system that nurtures big debates over large issues?

Katrina vanden Heuvel is the editor of The Nation.

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