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The Failure of Presidential Politics
The Need to Reconsider Media Structures
By Ed Knudson
As this is written the bombing of the least powerful nation on earth by the most powerful continues into its eighth day. Post office carriers fear distributing envelopes filled with Anthrax. The internal politics of three key Muslim states are becoming more unstable, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Though probably hidden in some cave in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden appears at this point to be succeeding in two of his prime goals: to cause terror in the hearts of Americans and to overthrow the governments in these three countries with conservative Islamic regimes.
How did this all come about? How could this most powerful country have allowed itself to be in a position to be successfully attacked by these terrorists? Though no one at this moment wants to criticize the country, at some point we have to ask some of these basic questions.
One answer may well lie in the way by which this country has been electing its presidents over the last couple decades. There has been what we could call a "failure" of presidential politics. The way political parties and candidates have framed the issues has not matched the actual conditions at home or around the world in such a way that presidents have been able to develop realistic and workable governmental policies and programs. The politicians have access to the public only through the media; but small-minded journalists treat presidential campaigns like a horse-race rather than do the hard work of addressing actual substantive issues. Politicians end up just calling one another names; the one who is elected is the one who demonstrates superior capacity to attack his opponent through television ads.
Most thoughtful people reconize the degradation of the presidential election process. But what we need to realize today is that that is one reason now for this terrorist attack. Terrorism has been happening now for many years. There have been many previous attacks in other countries. Islamic fundamentalism has been growing for a long time. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been escalating for years with no solution. A Gulf War was fought in a bright flash and then forgotten; you would have thought the political process could have taught us something about the role of oil in our economic stability.
Something has been wrong with our basic political process and I believe it is extremely important for all of us to begin to rethink how we think politically, how we do our politics in this country, how the media covers politics. It is through the political process that we as citizens not only elect particular leaders but also come to understand ourselves as a country, what we consider to be important matters for us to debate collectively, and what is going on around us in the world. If a democratic process is not able to provide leaders whose policies and programs are able to avert the kind of terrorist attacks now occurring it may well be that fearful human beings in this country will be open to other alternatives, moving us in the direction of totalitarianism.
We need to look at the media structures through which the political process occurs. Politicians today need to spend great amounts of time and effort just raising money. The money they raise goes to whom? It goes to the television stations, the very stations who are supposed to be neutral in how they cover the election process. Do you think these stations are going to allow a serious debate over whether they should be paid all this money? Not unless there was a great deal of discussion from the bottom up.
I encourage all readers to begin to make this point in your conversations with others. Begin talking about the media and elections. Let's look for viable alternatives. If democratic politics fails in this country then we will no longer be able to say that we are fighting for freedom. We would have already lost it.
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