One should not have been surprised that last year's presidential campaign, in which both candidates made similar promises to give voters what pollsters said they wanted, would end up in a litigious deadlock. Campaign rhetoric scrupulously avoided great issues, and the candidates' increasing reliance on polls and focus groups so stifled genuine debate that neither candidate surged and rallied voters with a commanding mandate. But the deeper concern is that such poll-driven elections threaten to change the nature of government from deliberative republicanism to passive consumerism.
Campaign promises are a venerable American tradition, but this time they were the campaign. Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. Bush argued over who could better micromanage education, how to make taxpayers pay for other people's prescription drugs, what kind of accounting fiction can best guard Social Security, and whose tax plan would benefit whom. Grave issues like missile defense, international trade, questions of human life, the role of the courts, human rights, and "civil unions" were addressed only in passing.
How did political discourse get so dumbed down? One explanation is the end of world wars, hot and cold. These times are not like those when Franklin Roosevelt, through extraordinary oratory, summoned Americans to defend freedom; or when John F. Kennedy challenged citizens to ask not what their country could do for them; or when Ronald Reagan raised spirits to defeat the Evil Empire. The lifting of international threats allows campaigns to treat voters more like consumers than citizens. Computer technology profiles swing voters in battleground states so that campaign messages are precisely targeted. Focus groups found the term vouchers ...1