Where Are the New Ideas?
Not On the Campaign Trail

By Scott London

From a political perspective, the 1996 party conventions had limited news value. Robert Dole's nomination was clinched long before the gathering in San Diego and his running mate Jack Kemp had already been announced. The speakers were breathtakingly predictable. The Democrats lined up the usual suspects — the Jesse Jacksons and Mario Cuomos — to sermonize on the usual themes: gun control, equal opportunity, welfare reform. The Republicans, with their usual flair for colorful rhetoric, had people like Colin Powell calling for a "restoration of the American Dream."

For all their attention to exit polls and focus group research, America's politicians and newspeople are largely oblivious to the groundswell of new ideas rearranging our relationships, career directions, educational decisions, and even spiritual values.

These were essentially cheerleading and fundraising rallies — innocuous political rituals — not major news events. But the media told a different story. Blazing headlines and gavel-to-gavel coverage would have us believe that the events in San Diego and Chicago were comparable in significance to the Philadelphia convention 200 years ago.

The alarming thing about the coverage was that the news media and the parties alike seemed more concerned with creating a compelling show than with engaging in a substantive dialogue with the American public. In their combined efforts to make the conventions as newsworthy and interesting as possible, their real political meaning became a secondary concern, if not altogether irrelevant.

The convention coverage was yet another reminder that the nation's political leaders are not the only ones who are out of touch with the American public. The media too have failed to address the fundamental issues and ideas that matter most in this election year.

A report released last month by the National Issues Forums Institute shows a yawning gap between the problems Americans say they care about and the issues that get addressed by politicians and the media. The study was based on hundreds of community conversations held in schools, churches, libraries, and living rooms across the country.

When regular citizens come together to deliberate about public issues, the report showed, their talk is strikingly different from the rhetoric heard along the campaign trail or in the news media. People talk about the deepening divide between America's rich and poor, not obscure indicators about the state of the economy. They worry about the growing pressures on working families, not "family values." And they are interested in pragmatic solutions, not liberal or conservative fixes.

The report underscored what many of us already know from talking with friends, neighbors and members of the community — that the deeper issues shaping our lives today are not reflected in the national debate. For all their attention to exit polls and focus group research, America's politicians and newspeople are largely oblivious to the groundswell of new ideas rearranging our relationships, career directions, educational decisions, and even spiritual values.

This was echoed in a recent readers' survey in the Utne Reader, a magazine devoted to the ideas of "the emerging culture." The poll showed that "a vast majority" of respondents were disillusioned by the two-party system. Their chief political concerns had little to do with big campaign issues like crime, corporate downsizing, or the budget crisis. Instead, they worried about what they see as a pervasive "moral and spiritual decay" in America. They were also concerned about the environment, racial tensions, campaign finance reform, and corporate domination of society.

The San Francisco-based research firm American Lives recently showed that these concerns are shared by a growing number of Americans today. According to executive vice president Paul H. Ray, he and his colleagues set out to map America's changing beliefs and attitudes, but instead of analyzing demographic indicators like age, education, income, and racial background, they studied people's values — lifestyles, purchasing habits, and social concerns.

To their astonishment, they found that there is a whole segment of the American population that nobody has paid much attention to. Ray calls them "Cultural Creatives," because "they are the ones who are coming up with most new ideas in American culture, operating on the leading edge of cultural change." Ten years ago, Ray says, there were so few people in this subculture that no one bothered to measure them. Today, his research indicates, there are some 44 million Cultural Creatives.

These Americans are distinguished by their idealism, attention to global issues, and commitment to new ideas. Their concerns include:

  • Rebuilding our neighborhoods and communities
  • Addressing the threats to ecological sustainability posed by overpopulation, extinction of species, pollution, etc.
  • Curbing violence and abuse against women and children
  • Restricting the influence of big corporations
  • Creating and maintaining fulfilling relationships
  • Choosing simpler lifestyles and making do with less
  • Developing our human potential and creativity
  • Helping others, volunteering, and creating a better society

According to Ray, Cultural Creatives share some of the same concerns as other segments of American society. The difference is that this group is trying to forge a new path for the future rather than return to an idealized past. They are sensitive to the challenges we face as a society and realize the need for new approaches and innovative leadership, not politics-as-usual.

This is not a marginal group of people. Almost everybody in my circle of friends belongs in this category. When we talk about politics, it's never black-and-white. We wrestle with the issues, look at different options and try to make room for new ideas. The disappointment and resignation many of us feel comes from the fact that our views are not being heard.

What we get instead are party conventions scripted and choreographed down to the last detail, events carefully orchestrated to have the greatest appeal to the greatest number. Soundbites and glossy visuals tell us that what matters is the process — not the content — of politics.

When Jack Kemp took the stage in San Diego and called it not just a party convention but a "celebration of ideas," he wasn't referring to the kind of ideas at the frontiers of change, the ideas that challenge the present and shape the future, the ideas on which true leadership is built. He was falling back on rhetoric and tired political cliches.

This is exactly what we have to get away from. Politicians and newspeople need to elevate the debate by addressing real ideas. The way to do that is by spending more time talking to the American people — not to each other.

This article appeared in the Santa Barbara News-Press, August 29, 1996.