January 15, 2004

The Howard Dean campaign has highlighted a problem that has grown more and more acute in America over the past two decades. The problem is this: it has become impermissible for a politician to tell the truth.

The land is awash with wailing that politicians say nothing. But relatively few people ask seriously why they say nothing. If we consider what's happened to Howard over the past few weeks, the answer is evident.

Any attempt to discuss a complex problem with the subtlety it demands will be met with howls of indignation and charges that the speaker has committed hideous gaffes.

Take Mr. Dean's comment about the Iowa caucuses, for example. I saw the edition of The Editors several years ago in which this supposed terrible mistake was made. The discussion then had to do with how the nomination processes of the major parties could become more democratic. And Mr. Dean commented, sensibly and truthfully, that caucuses tend to reflect more extreme opinions than is common among the general electorate. There was nothing crazy in what he said, and nothing insulting. But now, a rational remark he made years ago is thrown in his face as the most recent of his gaffes.

Or take his statement that if we wish to be a just society, we must insist on fair trials, even if the person being tried is as unpopular as Osama bin Laden. You'd think from the uproar that Howard had joined the terrorist camp. John Kerry has hammered him unmercifully for the remark. But you don't hear anyone asking Senator Kerry, if he doesn't want fair trials, what kind of trials he does want. There is, after all, only one other kind.

The effect of telling politicians they can't say anything that goes beyond greeting-card slogans is to produce a political culture that's becoming increasingly stupid. We can't discuss our social problems because anybody who attempts to discuss them in realistic terms is howled down and destroyed.

The political pundits are scratching their heads over Howard Dean's appeal. They don't seem able to conceive that maybe some portion of the public would like to hear substance from politicians, and that they see in Dean a person who is trying, at least a little bit, to offer them substance.

We need to ask ourselves who benefits from a stupid political culture. Obviously, there's the media, who profit from sensationalism, and who, consequently, want to turn everything into another version of the Jerry Springer Show. But, more significant, I think, is a political philosophy which holds that the people must be manipulated for their own good, and, therefore, that the stupider the people are, the safer they will be. It's the proponents of this philosophy who scare me as we move towards the election in November.

©John R. Turner

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