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Published on Sunday, August 27, 2000 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
American Political Landscape Barren Of Grand Ideas
by Chi-Dooh Li
Where have all the flowers gone?

Pete Seeger's haunting lyrics written a generation ago came to mind, in a way, as I listened in the past weeks to acceptance speeches by George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Where have all the ideas gone?

Long time passing, seems, since we heard an acceptance speech distinguished by ideas that stirred the soul and moved the heart.

Democracy is an idea. But only fools would think it is only an idea. It is an idea so powerful it ignited a revolution in this country for which men and women willingly staked their lives and everything dear to them.

So powerful that a man who could hardly be expected to comprehend the meaning of the word would have the courage to stand alone in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square.

"Every idea," in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, "is an incitement."

Long time ago, it seems, since an acceptance speech was rich in inciting ideas rather than polished rhetorical flourishes or numbing policy specifics.

Acceptance speeches at party conventions are a unique genre in the literature of politics. They are the public "coming out" of the candidate, the occasion for a nation, and even a world, to see and hear what the freshly minted nominee for the highest office in this land is made of.

Millions of us listen intently to every word and intonation uttered by a candidate accepting the presidential nomination. Few speeches captivate such a national and international audience.

No other partisan political speech will be heard with such open minds. No matter what the candidate has said earlier, most people seem willing to give a fair hearing to an acceptance speech. This is unquestionably the opportunity for the candidate to reach far and wide and win the hearts and minds of more than just the rabid supporters on the convention floor.

The most memorable acceptance speech in our lifetime and perhaps in the annals of presidential politics was one booby-trapped with powerful ideas.

For good reason, the Democrats in Los Angeles invoked time and again the memory of John F. Kennedy's 1960 acceptance speech, given in the same city. Even some Republicans paid homage to it two weeks earlier in Philadelphia.

Interestingly, Kennedy himself lamented the dearth of ideas in that speech: "There has been a change -- a slippage -- in our intellectual and moral strength. Seven lean years of drought and famine have withered the field of ideas."

He identified a condition that most of us would say holds true even today: "Dry rot, beginning in Washington, is seeping into every corner of America -- in the payola mentality, the expense account way of life, the confusion between what is legal and what is right. Too many Americans have lost their way, their will and their sense of historic purpose."

His vision to cure this national malaise became the central theme of his 1960 campaign: "The New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises -- it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not their pocketbook -- it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security."

Acceptance speeches do not win or lose elections. But an acceptance speech can make the difference in whether people are moved to get involved, not only in the campaign for the next three months, but after all the votes are cast and counted.

JFK's acceptance speech changed people's lives. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, and young people in particular, were inspired by his words to enter public service, and to rethink the way they would spend or save their money, or give it away. It moved people to regard self-sacrifice not just as an occasional act of altruism, but a life-long philosophy. And this was in a time when Americans were far less secure financially, and the prosperity we enjoy today as a nation could hardly have been imagined.

Where, then, have the ideas gone? Have the seven lean years of drought and famine spoken of by JFK stretched into 47 years?

There is, for sure, the loss of intellectual and moral strength that Kennedy underscored. But more than that, in the 40 intervening years, politics itself has undergone a fundamental transformation that effectively chills the development of ideas like new buds are stunted by an early frost.

Ironically, that transformation first came about in the very place where ideas are supposed to be planted and nurtured -- university campuses.

Social scientists have always envied their physical scientist brethren. Physical, or "real" scientists, could observe, measure, and in laboratories and fields, replicate the phenomena they studied. Most importantly, they could predict with accuracy what would happen given certain conditions and circumstances.

In the '60s, academicians in the social sciences began to search for ways in which they too could measure, quantify and ultimately predict. Nowhere did this new academic fashion rage hotter than in the field of political science.

In elite graduate schools across the country, the '60s were years when history, law, economics and political theory, all core curriculum subjects in political science, were shoved aside in favor of statistics, quantitative methods and mathematical analysis. Behaviorism and games theory swept into the field and emerged as the new orthodoxy.

The aim of all this intellectual machination was to quantify and measure human political thinking in order to predict, with accuracy, human political behavior.

How better to serve the national interest in foreign policy than to be able to quantify and predict the Soviet Union's next strategic political or military moves? What a treasure trove of information could be supplied to political leaders on the domestic front on exactly what their voters want or do not want.

The intellectual arrogance inherent in thinking that human behavior, even political behavior, in all its complexities and subtleties could be put into a box and neatly labeled, knew no bounds.

This obsession, like a virus, spread from academia to the world of practical politics. Political decision-making became married to polls and focus groups, leaving courage and conviction behind as jilted suitors. Electoral politics went from the art of persuasion to the science of manipulation.

Candidates and elected officials in major political office today hardly act or speak their minds in public without first consulting their high priests with names like Carville, Morris, Luntz and Greenberg, over polls and focus group data.

Bill Clinton has perfected this science. For eight years, he has fed the American public a steady diet of political statements and program proposals pre-screened by polls and focus groups, couched in words and phrases pre-tested to elicit the exact response desired.

In years past Woodrow Wilson challenged the nation with a New Freedom. Franklin Roosevelt turned the country around with a New Deal. JFK lifted our sights to a New Frontier.

Today Bush and Gore promise us universal pre-school, community police, prescription drugs, estate-tax repeal and tax cuts ad nauseum.

For sure these are things we really like to hear.

But the effect is like a young child being fed an unchanging diet of fast food hamburgers and fries because that is what he wants to eat the most. Sooner or later the child will suffer from scurvy or some other form of malnutrition.

As a nation we have a serious case of scurvy of the mind and malnutrition of the soul.

I am tired of politicians who treat us like Pavlov's dogs, sounding words and programs designed to make us salivate. They are the new demagogues.

I am sick of being talked to in focus-group terms. I don't care what cross section of America they manage to get in their focus groups. I want to hear what a candidate really believes and is passionate about; not what managers claim focus groups want to hear.

I am fed up with having my self-interest pandered to. I long for a leader who helps me look beyond my self-interest, and pushes me to serve others.

There is no lack of tough issues today. Racism persists. Drug abuse is rampant, reaching ever younger children. Our societal values are sky-high on material well-being, but down in the sewers in matters of the soul.

JFK lamented 40 years ago that Americans were losing their way, their will and their sense of historic purpose. Imagine his dismay if he were alive today and could see how much further we have strayed.

Where are the politicians with enough guts and conviction to speak to these issues squarely, and tell us not things we want to hear, but need to hear?

Where are the candidates who will challenge us, during this time of unprecedented prosperity, to look beyond our individual peace and well-being, and stir us to care and act for others here and around the world, including the billions who live in desperate poverty that strips them of their very humanity?

Where are the men and women running for high office who understand that ideas are powerful catalysts for action that can excite people and generate tremendous support?

If the "American spirit" that every presidential candidate acknowledges in speeches does not rise up to protest the death of ideas in American politics, then the answer can only be expressed in Seeger's poignant refrain,

They've gone to the graveyards, every one.

Oh, when will they ever learn?

Oh, when will they ever learn.

Chi-Dooh Li is a Seattle attorney.

1999-2000 Seattle Post-Intelligencer


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