Americans deserve honesty from politicians, not poetic responses

It's been said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Maybe that explains why voters keep hearing nursery-rhyme solutions to enormously complex problems.

It's been said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Maybe that explains why voters keep hearing nursery-rhyme solutions to enormously complex problems.

We're seeing it again in the 2008 presidential election and a host of state and local campaigns. On issue after issue, candidates recite nuance-free slogans in speeches, campaign PR, and advertisements.

It's too easy to blame politicians and their marketing handlers for their reluctance to come clean. After all, the main reason that they reduce difficult issues to slogans is that they're convinced voters are too shallow or too selfish to accept reality.

They might be right. Americans have come to believe, by almost all available evidence, that we have a basic right to low taxes, vast domestic services, a huge and growing military, an endlessly expanding standard of living, and just about anything else we desire. We believe in not just a free lunch, but an endless cornucopia that someone else will pay for. What we don't admit is that “someone else” is our kids and their kids.

The marketing and PR industries bear some responsibility for our national fantasies. Pandering slogans are inherent in a market economy, not just politics.

Yet directness and honesty in dealing with customers is increasingly paying off for businesses. The recent Netflix woes, in which the rental-DVD company found itself unable to send movies to customers for several days, ended with the company's forthright admission, explanation, and compensation for paying customers – and a user base, which includes me, that trusted the company a bit more.

Maybe we're ready for a more honest political conversation, too.

Yes, the two major-party candidates for president this year are playing most of the usual games during the campaign. They offer painless solutions, including ever-more-reckless tax cuts, which would ultimately make things even worse. But both have, on occasion, hinted that they understand some of the hard choices we will have to make. That suggests they know perfectly well – and, if we are honest with ourselves, so do we – that the longer we wait to sacrifice some immediate pleasures, the steeper the price we'll pay, probably sooner rather than later.

The American people might well be selfish, and we have turned our primary and secondary public education into a pathetic mess, but we are not stupid. Deep down, I suspect, we get it.

I'm still waiting for a candidate who'll trust Americans with the difficult realities – that we are in trouble and that we'll have to sacrifice and invest or else leave our kids with insurmountable woes. I suspect that the voters are ready for this message, now, before it's too late.

Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. Send e-mails to dan@gillmor.com.

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