Johnny's off to war, dispatched once more to a distant land in defense of some international principle he may not comprehend and almost certainly cannot define in lawyerly terms. That's all right; we do not require of young warriors degrees in philosophy or foreign affairs.
But in the comfort and safety of our nests here at home, we might ponder some of the ironies in these political rescue missions to which we have become addicted. The principal irony is that Johnny leaves behind a society whose own political institutions are in trouble and whose political system is in a state of decay.
Just last week the sovereign citizens of Georgia and Kansas demonstrated the political cynicism of the American people and their growing indifference to the rituals of democracy. Important primary elections for state offices were held on Tuesday, and The People responded with a great yawn. In Georgia, where the political celebrity Andrew Young hoped to become the state's first elected black governor, nearly 80 percent of the potential electorate stayed away from the polls. In Kansas, nonvoters outnumbered voters nearly three to one.
Only half of our people turn out for presidential elections; two-thirds of us will not vote in the congressional elections this fall. We will whine about "special interests" and "big money," but 97 percent of us won't give a dime directly to political candidates or parties; 80 percent refused in 1988 to check off on their income tax returns the painless $1 contribution to the federal election fund. Americans have concluded, in the words of Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater, that politics and politicians are "full of baloney" and largely irrelevant. That cynicism extends to other major institutions in our society, the press included. It is reflected in the steady decline in newspaper readership and circulation and in shrinking audiences for television's nightly news programs.
Michael Oreskes, writing recently in The New York Times, reported that "an unhappy consensus has emerged at home that domestic politics has become so shallow, mean and even meaningless that it is failing to produce the ideas and leadership needed to guide the United States in a rapidly changing world ... Trivialization. Atomization. Paralysis. These words have become the descriptive vocabulary on which members of both parties draw to describe the state of politics and government in America."
Whenever we discover a problem in this country, instant causes and cures are discovered by the "media." That is the case now. We conclude that the political system is corrupted and the masses are repelled by "negative" political commercials on television. We will attack the problem with newspaper and network "truth squads," thereby cleansing the system and restoring popular faith in democracy.
But is it possible that this crusade overlooks another and perhaps more important virus in our midst, the virus of "negativism" within the "media"? To ask the question is to confess heresy. Yet, the belief is widespread (if rarely voiced) that the media's search for conflict, human imperfection, scandal and sensation demeans, trivializes and often distorts far more than any television commercial the reputations of not only politicians but the democratic system itself.
"Negativism" in our political coverage and commentary has virtually doubled in the past 30 years, according to studies cited by Mr. Oreskes. Our central message to the public is that "there is something wrong with the campaign; there is something wrong with the candidate." And always there is something wrong with the government and with those who govern. This may account for some of the reluctance of many able people to consider public service. As Kurt Luedtke, former editor of the Detroit Free Press, once told the American Newspaper Publishers Association, "There are good men and women who will not stand for office, concerned that you will find their flaws or invent them. Many people who have dealt with you wish they had not. You are capricious and unpredictable, you are fearsome and you are feared because there is never any way to know whether this time you will be fair and accurate or whether you will not. And there is virtually nothing we can do about it."
Our new newsroom truth squads might put this subject on their agenda. It is, after all, a very modest proposal.