The Antidote for Campaign Distortions

October 24, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

CHICAGO — Chicago.--Are Americans satisfied with a midterm election season being described as the most bitterly negative in modern political history?

Is there a chance they'd like a debate more constructive than this fall's barrage of campaign ads evoking fear of violent crime, touting the death penalty, urging more prisons and longer sentences, attacking taxes, immigrants, welfare cheats and check-kiting congressmen?

It's hard to tell when virtually every major candidate, Republican or Democrat, seems to have succumbed to the bill of goods sold them by the pollsters and campaign consultants. The political handlers are saying that voters are in such a surly mood that constructive ideas are a waste of time, that nothing but fear or outrage will pierce the public consciousness.

The obvious solution is a more reasoned conversation -- to query voters not just about their fears but what kinds of solutions they'd like to see applied to public problems. To engage them, in short, in the public debate.

It's an idea foreign to the gatekeepers of the media barrage. But in ''civic journalism'' efforts spread around the country this fall -- from Boston to Charlotte, St. Petersburg to San Francisco -- newspapers and broadcasters have been going first to ordinary citizens, to get their judgments on critical issues. In some cases they put citizens on the air to question candidates directly.

The Illinois Voter Project -- spearheaded by the League of Women Voters and the University of Chicago -- is one of '94's most fascinating efforts. Two panels of voters -- one from Chicago, one from its suburbs -- were selected from the pool of citizens responding to a baseline survey -- balanced carefully across age, race, ethnic group and income. The panels' members ranged from a retired secretary to a zoo animal keeper, building engineer to a police trainer.

The two 14-person panels quickly agreed that crime, education and taxes are the top issues that Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and his challenger, State Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, should be tackling in their campaign.

Then the panels plunged into hours of listening to, and questioning, experts in criminology, child care, taxation, schooling and other areas. After that they debated among themselves to set their priorities of where they thought Illinois should be headed. Their conclusions, the Chicago Tribune's Charles Madigan reported, were a world apart from ''traditional politics, with its sound bites, easy promises, bickering and poll-driven proposals.''

On crime, for example, both panels brushed aside the popular cures of more cops and more prisons. Why, they asked, would Illinois want to build more prisons when it's already constructed $500 million worth of jails since the late 1970s, with no appreciable impact on crime?

The suburban panel's No. 1 solution was to ''emphasize reading, writing and critical-thinking skills and provide alternative educational programs (such as apprenticeship programs) to prepare students to enter the work force of tomorrow and create options other than crime.'' The city panel, on a parallel track, suggested expanded early-intervention programs such as Head Start, with mandatory participation by welfare recipients. As for actual criminals, the group said all should expect ''swift and certain sanctions,'' but with a difference: real prison time for violent criminals, community-based sentencing, restitution included, for non-violent offenders.

And while Chicago suburbanites are supposed to be bitterly and irresistibly anti-tax, the suburban panel actually came up with a way to fund several social and economic development programs it suggested -- first re-engineering the state government to cut employee rolls 10 percent, then a 1 percent hike in the state income tax.

The ordinary folks' common sense makes one wonder -- do the campaign consultants understand how much smarter people are than the automatons they design their ads for? ''In their focus groups,'' suggests Richard C. Harwood, one of the country's most thoughtful public-opinion analysts, ''the consultants look for hot buttons. They hear crime; they assume people want tougher sentences. I wonder how much they really talk to people about their lives as opposed to what might work in a political campaign.''

Worst of all, says Mr. Harwood, Americans today are distraught, do feel cut off, do want to be part of the process of putting their country back together. ''The political consultants don't realize this is real for people, it's serious, it affects their daily lives, and that it's not just a game of winning political campaigns.''

Maybe we should ask citizen panels to write some of the ads for campaign seasons. Who says a complex thought -- like locking up the dangerous even while disciplining the non-violent in their own communities -- can't be conveyed in 30 seconds?

Instead we get airborne monstrosities like ads in which California Gov. Pete Wilson calls his opponent soft on rapists and child molesters, or Ohio Senate candidate Mike DeWine boasts ''I went after rapists and drug dealers.''

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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