No, it's not the bad old image makers. Nor is it the ratings-driven TV news directors. It's us. Californians are checking out on doing any real thinking about polities or public policy and are instead surrendering themselves to instinct. Issues have become increasingly complicated, and the decisions we are asked to make increasingly involve shades of gray. Even well-intentioned voters find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer length of a ballot pamphlet that in some years has a Volume I and a Volume II.
Few institutions better reflect the consequences of our political inattentiveness than the California Legislature. At its worst, the Legislature suggests that it is possible for a representative body to be too representative. With a helping hand from term limits, the Legislature, as currently constituted, sounds like a group of people consumed by their own spin. Politicians who come to office by presenting themselves as "outsiders" see themselves as having little or no connection to the institution. After all, they are men and women of "principle." Just follow your heart. It'll all work out.
It seldom does. More often, the relative inexperience and political self-absorption result in a level of discourse that sounds remarkably like the shrill, vapid campaigns that brought these people to office in the first place. Committee and floor debate is often laced with personal invective, snide insult and the same cookie-cutter solutions that once enticed voters.
The coming fight over a proposed reduction in the vehicle license fee, the "car tax," is a case in point. Regardless of its merits, don't let anyone convince you that the issue was prompted by a spontaneous taxpayer revolt. It is the issue in California now because last year it was the issue in Virginia, where it helped Republicans win a governorship and statewide offices. Just another in a long line of debates in which the lines between policy and political spin blur into invisibility.
Of course, many say that this is simply the way of things. Isn't the whole idea of democracy to elect people who reflect their constituents? Don't we want leaders who are just like us? No, we don't. We ask a whole lot more of officeholders now that we did when government by parable was even remotely possible.
The cold fact is, we only get out of our leaders what we put into selecting them. Voting is the foundation of representative government and becoming informed is the sweat equity. If we only reach far enough to choose those who are just like us, likely we'll wind up with more than our share of low-watt space fillers who mouth faux Populism and color well within the partisan lines. But if we want our leaders to deliver what we expect of them, we have got to do more than just proclaim our disgust with negative advertising. As long as voting is little more than "short attention span theater," government will continue to resemble theater of the absurd.