The days of big ideas are over. We have entered an era of smallness, of incremental fixes, of a couple of stitches dressed up as major surgery. The big critique is gone, the challenge to the status quo a thing of the past. The two major parties have narrowed the political debate in America, have determined that voters are afraid of challenges, that grand schemes don't sell and that all we can expect is a little bit of touch up on the rust spots.
It is the politics of the new millennium, a politics in which healthcare reform means extending prescription drug benefits but not universal coverage, in which we quibble over a couple of dollars for defense when what we need to do is slash the defense budget.
That is what the election of 2000 has turned out to be. The candidates with the big ideas -- Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan -- have been forced to watch this horserace on television. They've been excluded from the grandstand and the American people are the poorer for it.
It's not just the debates that are at issue here. That two well-known alternate party candidates were not allowed to spar over the issues with the Al Gore and George W. Bush was unfortunate and wrong. But it was only part of the problem.
Of more importance was that the mainstream press from the beginning seemed all too willing to marginalize Nader and Buchanan as novelties, as cranky oddities who refused to bow out and let the serious candidates do their work. That's a shame, because both had something to offer, something that would have expanded the debate and broadened the discussion beyond the confines of the supposedly acceptable.
I have no use for Pat Buchanan. He is a racist and a xenophobe, has no interest in civil liberties, civil rights or civility in general. But he's not afraid to take on the corporate culture that runs this country and to ask tough questions about why American politicians and corporations are so willing to allow jobs to leave this country. Given the chance, Buchanan would have forced Gore and Bush to explain why working people should support the global economy.
Nader's critique is more complex. Unlike Buchanan, he seems to care about all workers, not just those living in the United States, and he is concerned about democracy. His opposition to the World Trade Organization stems as much from his concern that it is designed to allow profits to override the right of citizens to set their own political agendas and their legislatures to pass laws.
Taking the Nader candidacy seriously would have meant talking about real universal healthcare, a single-payer plan that guarantees all citizens access and is paid through taxes. It would have meant taking a close look at the way money distorts politics and erodes democracy. It would have forced Gore to own up to the Clinton Administration's lackluster environmental record and not stand pat on a reputation won through the publication of a book nearly a decade ago.
Without Buchanan and Nader, the mainstream press was free to follow the its musty old campaign script: Two candidates representing the two acceptable sides of the political spectrum. On the left, the Liberal Democrat played Vice President Al Gore and the Conservative Republican played by George W. Bush. The only wrinkles allowed were the sanctimonious attack by Gore and running mate Joseph Lieberman on the American Culture machine and Bush's attempt to dress up his conservative policies in a cloak of compassion.
The mainstream press corps is a hopeless case, a group of middle-aged men (and a handful of women) that spends its days trying to justify its existence with useless pronouncements and predictions. It focuses on poll results, on the daily tracking of candidates as if reporters were bookies and not purveyors of information.
That's because the Washington press is both lazy and overly deferential to power (see James Fallows' Breaking the News, Timothy Crouse's The Boys on the Bus and Mark Hertsgaard's On Bended Knee). And because of this, it disdains asking difficult questions that might require (1) research and analysis and (2) confrontation. Any information not gleaned from representatives of the two parties, or that might interfere with the outmoded two-party construction is ignored.
Reform is likely to be difficult -- the media is merging into fewer but larger entities that cast a wider net than ever before and the government has been reluctant to use its power to regulate media monopolies -- which means change is not likely to happen soon.
That means that anything not raised by Al Gore or George Bush -- or future party clones -- will remain off the media's radar screen, is not likely to be considered important.
Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of The South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press in New Jersey. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.