The alarming trend of political illiteracy

Saturday, September 6, 2003

KENNETT, MO. -- The trend has been growing steadily over the past decade until today it has become so prevalent that few seem to care.

I'm referring to the growing citizen tendency to judge public servants by their political popularity rather than the views they are propounding for governance.

A popular candidate, whose personality makes him a "winner" in today's political merry-go-round but whose serious loss of objectivity or his fatal pursuit of personal success at the polls has become his prime goal, is more to be feared than the participants who ultimately become also-rans in the scramble for political worth and achievement.

To check the accuracy of this, one merely need turn to a news report concerning any major public issue in which there is a lack of agreement. Whether the issue is public education or transportation or health care, the typical emphasis is most often placed on the proponent's politics, the prospect of his success or failure or the career advantages or disadvantages attributed to participants.

An unpopular governor, unpopular for a variety of reasons, finds himself a seemingly inconspicuous party to a successful resolution. Sponsorship of needed reforms by competent but unpopular politicians can spell doom for obviously needed changes and reforms.

We have entered the age of political imagery that has little bearing or effect on the ultimate resolution of serious public-issue challenges, and the result has often been a denial of satisfactory resolution.

Like it or not, we are living in the Age of Excuses, buttressed by momentary political popularity or the sudden decline of political support.

Much of this can be attributed to the sound-bite coverage we ordinary citizens receive from those doing the reporting and those whose view of public governance is no more than a recurrence of grassroots acceptance of politically tainted changes.

The lack of popularity for many of the needed reforms put forth by Gov. Bob Holden is hardly a state secret, particularly as time quickly approaches for another quadrennial circus of campaign spending. Whether one supports or opposes the star-crossed state chief executive, many of his proposals have ended up in the Capitol wastebaskets, seldom if even blessed by public recognition of their merit. While this in no way provides an endorsement for all of Holden's administrative goals, it does point to the danger of automatic rejection in the current political environment.

The same can be said for proposals offered by those on the opposite side of the political bank. Republicans, just now beginning to flex their governing muscles, have not escaped this trend toward tarring and feathering state challenges that, once proposed, are obviously going nowhere in Jefferson City much less in the great grassroots area of the state.

How many so-called leaders can you recall who five years ago, or even one year ago, received acceptance of their plans to modernize or reorganize the state's public education system? I'll be quite frank in admitting that I cannot name a single so-called political leader who anticipated the crisis that is now threatening the steady progress once promised by political figures to the parents of Missouri.

The consequences of a shifted agenda in Missouri from pursuing services for constituents to winning singular political battles are major ones. We seem to have forgotten that political parties exist to promote what is normally called public services, but the reality is that these programs, whether workable or totally without merit, are designed to snag votes for their proponents.

We have lost our way in so many different areas of self-government that it is difficult to believe public support will be forthcoming from any save those who can muster citizen support for single-issue programs.

We have, indeed, become cynics in a cynical era, a fact made all the more unfortunate by increasing reliance on government by opposition rather than public acceptance.

Like Pogo, we have seen the enemy and he is us. The problem is whether our vision extends beyond the current maze of missed opportunities.

Jack Stapleton is the editor of Missouri News and Editorial Service.

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