THE RESULTS of the special election, while largely expected, are truly remarkable for what they reveal about who we are as a state and the current nature of our political landscape. They are not just important because they may end up being Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Waterloo, but also because they show so clearly that our political discourse is terribly broken, perhaps far beyond repair.
For instance, how in the world did Proposition 77 get so badly clobbered? The initiative -- which would have taken legislative and congressional redistricting out of the hands of politicians and given it to a nonpartisan panel of judges -- had the backing of our until-recently-popular governor, numerous Democrats and the majority of Republicans, as well as Common Cause and even the admittedly liberal editorial board of the L.A. Times (and every other major paper in the state). It is almost impossible to get that kind of agreement on what day of the week it is!
Not that many officials were willing to speak out publicly against trying to fix a clearly busted system of redistricting that nearly everyone agrees is corrupt and anti-democratic. Instead, the plan was apparently shot down because of 30-second TV ads that alternately featured a long-forgotten “People’s Court” judge and three nameless (but clearly evil) old white male actors in robes who were seen carving up the state to look like Texas.
In fact, the entire special election campaign was dictated by 30-second TV ads (and to a lesser extent the relatively substantive 60-second radio ads) that were mostly such verbal garbage as to make even a Beverly Hills gold digger addicted to plastic surgery seem deep and honest by comparison. The vast majority of the commercials -- which, for merely a couple of hundred million dollars, took over our television sets for the final weeks of the campaign -- treated the truth as a mere technicality and the facts as just an obstacle to a goal apparently inspired by Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis’ famous mantra, “Just Win Baby.”
How could an anti-77 ad claim it was a “power grab” by politicians when, in fact, the initiative would take power away from politicians? How could an anti-Proposition 75 ad claim that Schwarzenegger had “tried to end death benefits for police and firefighters” when he did nothing of the sort? How could the teachers union say that the governor “cut” education spending when all he did was reduce the proposed increase (and actual spending went up by $3 billion this year)?
Unfortunately, in a country with a 1st Amendment, it is both impossible and inadvisable to ban or even restrict lying in a political campaign. However, that does not mean that there should be absolutely no repercussions for those who bend or break the truth in the pursuit of electoral victory. This is where the news media in California, as well as the public, failed in their democratic duties.
The newspapers (including this one, the paper of record for the region) made only a feeble effort to separate fact from fiction when it came to these absurd ads, and even then they made it seem as if both sides of the “debate” were lying equally.
In general, the news media seems to have created a matrix through which we were supposed to view all political discourse with such extreme cynicism that it is presumed that no one is telling the truth. So if one side claims that 2+2=4 and the other claims 2+2=100, there appears to be a consensus that the real answer must be somewhere in the middle. Ask yourself who prevails in that scenario? Obviously, it is the liars who win big because the truth, by its very nature, cannot be exaggerated. Well, there is absolutely no doubt that it was the liars who won in this election.
At least newspapers made some sort of an effort. Local TV news outlets (the very same ones that were making by far the most money from this election) gave almost a complete pass to the ads that were airing during their newscasts, focusing instead almost exclusively on the “horse race” aspect of the election. Even when KNBC and Telemundo sponsored a statewide, hour-long “forum” on the issues, it turned into a sham that was literally hijacked by Democratic Party operatives.
Our founding fathers knew well the vital importance of an informed and engaged public to make democracy work. Sadly, even in an era in which more information is at our fingertips than ever, California has proved that the machinery of our public dialogue is badly broken and that we as a people are not up to the considerable challenge of overcoming that deficiency.