The Two-Party System is Letting us Down

This year voting turnout could fall to a record presidential low. The decline partly reflects two dreadful candidates but also the long-term impoverishment of politics.

Membership organizations have been displaced by professional fund-raisers and TV spots. The time squeeze leaves no leisure for ordinary people to go to meetings. Civic values are crowded out by entertainment, celebrity, and marketing. If the Bush-Gore show has to compete as entertainment, it loses, and so do we.

But so much that affects our private lives is inherently and irrevocably political. Either we embrace political questions as a free people or decisions get made for us. And this year, most of the big questions are off the political radar screen.

Start with kids.

The new, 24-7 economy operates at the expense of children, especially children from families not affluent enough to buy their way out. Did you and your spouse have a spat this week about who had to juggle work and child rearing? This, gentle reader, is a deeply political question, and not just in the sense of our changing gender roles. It reflects a public policy default. So don't scream, organize.

The Foundation for Child Development recently released a superb report called ''Our Basic Dream,'' on working families and America's children.

The report addresses, among other things, the need for universal high-quality early education so that all kids are school-ready, especially 3- and 4-year-olds. (A century after the kindergarten movement, the United States doesn't even have universal public school kindergarten.)

The report also calls for universal health insurance both for kids and for working parents. It proposes converting welfare reform into a system for truly rewarding work, and not at the expense of America's children.

The report calls for decent affordable child care, which is beyond the means of perhaps half of all working families. Piecemeal strategies, says the report, cannot sustain our basic dream.

Where are these issues in the campaign? Gore supports child initiatives in principle, but his programs are puny because his obsession with debt paydown soaks up nearly all the money.

Supposedly, a smaller public debt leaves the economy with more private investment capital, which is good for productivity and economic growth. But what about investing in our children?

Alan Greenspan brakes the economy because we have a shortage of qualified workers. But if every child were school-ready, safe, and healthy - and then job-ready - the economy could perform even better. Why are both candidates playing Scrooge on this issue? Where is a real national debate?

What's true of a national commitment to children is also true of health care. Gore's incremental improvements in health coverage are a little better than Bush's, and so is his version of patients' rights. But neither candidate has addressed the big issue - the colossally wasteful and inhumane system brought to us by the private insurance industry.

Here in Massachusetts, voters have an opportunity to vote for Question 5, a ballot initiative that would guarantee health insurance to every resident, limit the ability of insurance companies to second-guess doctors, and limit the money insurers could spend on marketing and other nonhealth outlays.

But this option is off-limits in the national debate.

What about decent care for the elderly? What about the future of trade unions? What about consumer protections as once regulated industries such as airlines, phone companies, cable franchises, and electric utilities turn into unregulated monopolies? Will we get serious about mass transit or continue to choose between dependence on foreign oil and the pillaging of our own environment?

Given how the presidential campaign is deadening political choice, there are two possible outcomes. Either more and more voters will just get turned off to politics, leaving power ever more concentrated in the hands of the powerful, or ordinary people will find more ways to practice politics by state ballot initiatives, by organizing, and third parties.

In that connection, the recent round of Ralph Nader-bashing is unseemly. We hear he is nothing but an egotistical opportunist and a spoiler, that he should step aside in favor of Gore.

Alas, when mainstream politics is reduced to mechanical posturing, real democracy tends to leak out elsewhere. But don't blame Nader. His candidacy is a healthy response to the impoverishment of bipartisan politics. Nader is actually introducing into debate issues that both major candidates have left out.

I will probably hold my nose and vote for Gore, but if the Democrats don't want the Ralph Naders tipping the election to Republicans, they owe voters something better than this dismal campaign.

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