Fifty years ago today, the modern era of American political campaigns was born. On the evening of September 26, 1960, the two principal candidates for President of the United States -- Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy -- met in the first-ever nationally televised debate between two presidential candidates.
The debate, in which those who listened on radio felt that Nixon was the winner and those who watched on TV overwhelmingly favored Kennedy, laid the blueprint for what it would take to win elections in the era of mass media and broadcast communications. Candidates would need to be well-groomed, look healthy, work the cameras, and generally run campaigns that focus at least as much on style as substance. As network television gradually replaced radio and newspapers in the decades that followed as Americans' primary source for news and information, the Kennedy-Nixon debate came to be viewed as the turning point.
There were two American politicians who best exemplified this era: Ronald Reagan, a former television actor, who used masterful communication skills to energize his political base and then broaden his appeal to independents; and Bill Clinton, whose ability to convey detailed policy in a way that reached voters' hot buttons enabled him to solidify his political base and then broaden his appeal to independents. It is no coincidence that each of them -- one a Republican, one a Democrat -- were two-term presidents who left office with exceptional approval ratings and are still highly regarded as heroes of their political parties.
But with the decline of the dominance of network television and the emergence of a new era in mass communications -- in which the Internet, cable TV and talk radio all compete for slivers of the American consciousness at any given moment -- something disturbing has happened to our politics. The focus has shifted from image and communication skills to one's ability to cater to the shrillest voices in the electorate.
It's more valuable to the republic to have a reasoned discussion about which federal budget expenditures can be cut with the least pain inflicted on the most vulnerable Americans, but it's far more interesting and attention-grabbing on talk radio shows TO SHOUT ABOUT THAT SOCIALIST OBAMA AND HIS RADICAL AGENDA! And it may be more useful to the country's future to compare a few policy options for how we deal with an immigration system that nearly everyone agrees is broken, but it'll really light up the page views on blogs TO POST A RANT ABOUT THOSE RACISTS WHO WANT TO ROUND UP ANYONE WHO ISN'T WHITE!
The result of this division into camps based on political labels -- most often, as defined by political party affiliation -- is that we have paralyzed legislatures at the national, state and local levels. They are paralyzed by fear . . . fear of being labeled a traitor if they vote for the other guy's good idea, fear of angering their donors if they admit their opponent is a patriot who loves her country too, and most of all, fear of compromise if they dare to work out their differences with the bad guys across the aisle. Compromise does not play well on talk radio, cable news or the blogosphere.
This development makes some of us wax nostalgic for the good old days when we used to whine that American voters were more interested in what a candidate was wearing than what he or she was saying. At least back then the ones who passed the TV test to get themselves elected weren't afraid to vote for a good bill, just because it was sponsored by a guy on the other team or favored by a President they wanted to see fail.
However, more signs continue to emerge in the American body politic to suggest the early stages of a political movement -- or maybe a non-political movement -- are forming in response to this "shrillest voices seize the discourse" phenomenon. Last week, an interesting non-profit organization called No Labels announced its formation and declared its agenda.
"We are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who are united in the belief that we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what’s best for America," reads the introductory language on the group's Web site. "No Labels provides a forum and community for Americans of all political backgrounds interested in seeing the nation move not left, not right, but forward. No Labels encourages all public officials to prioritize the national interest over party interest, and to cease acting on behalf of narrow, if vocal, special interests on the far right or left."
And contained within the fledgling organization's Declaration are these two statements:
* We believe hyper-partisanship is destroying our politics and paralyzing our ability to govern.
* We may disagree on issues, but we do so with civility and mutual respect.
For many of us who are saddened by the turn that American politics has taken in the past decade or so, these statements ring as true as virtually any other guiding principles in our nation's history. Hyper-partisanship must be stopped if we're to have any chance at achieving cooperation among our elected officials -- and we all know deep down inside that our elected officials must be able to find ways of working with others regardless of their political affiliation if we want to avoid legislative paralysis at every level of government.
"Jefferson's Blog," an online site devoted to the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, carries this famous Jefferson quote across its masthead: "Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle."
As more patriotic Americans speak out for this simple idea that we can disagree with each other without throwing bombs at each other, our body politic will be less dominated by those shrill voices on the extremes. And when that turning point occurs, we'll see a shift in all of our legislatures so that politicians from different political parties will be applauded for working together to advance sound legislation -- not excoriated by activists in their little camps for selling out to the bad guys.
That's a development that even the fiercely competitive Kennedy and Nixon would want for their country, and a political environment that even party loyalists Reagan and Clinton counted on in order to get stuff done.