Yes, the presidential race has been ugly. But the accusations, smears and spin of the current campaign, although disgusting, are only reflections of a much larger problem. The plain truth is that we are in the process of destroying American democracy.

We can’t run an intellectually honest and fair presidential campaign because it is difficult for us to run an honest and fair civic process about most anything. Health-care policy is a shambles, Social Security is imperiled, and Washingtonians can’t solve our maddening public transportation problems.

Why? Because we live in a consumer society, a culture of the marketplace that necessitates a way of being increasingly unfamiliar with cooperation, civic participation, sacrifice for the common good.

Instead, we grow increasingly competitive, entitled, focused on acts of individual purchasing and consuming. It seems natural to ask whether you “buy” that idea, “own” your own feelings, or receive enough “benefit” from a relationship to continue “investing” in it.

Politically, President Bush is touting what he calls “the ownership society,” which would include an attempt to shrink cooperative programs such as Social Security and promote their privatization. The public commons is seen as dangerous and the private realm the only safe place.

Increasingly now, we focus primarily on two activities: buying and selling. Surrounded by commercial television, we are attracted by extravaganzas, we comfort ourselves by spending, and we notice mainly what is colorful, loud — or, I suppose, frightening, like “terrorism.” We are easily bored, easily led and easily manipulated by jangly, sparkly things or people.

Election processes have been reduced to long (and nasty) advertising campaigns, candidates into consumer items. You might say, “What’s wrong with that? As a consumer society, we get pretty much everything we want, and probably we get the politicians we deserve.”

But do we really get whatever we want? You could have fooled me: We look insecure, unsatisfied, angry, confused.

A democracy needs a thoughtful, informed citizenry. But, of course, advertising does not exist to inform, it exists to sell products and it will do so in any way possible. When candidates are products, voters inevitably are reduced to customers, honesty and fair play disappear, and then the whole process takes place on television during commercial breaks. Press conferences, like articulate candidates in unscripted debates or informative news programs, disappear; only good actors are needed. In such a world, there can be no effective democracy.

Finally, just who do you think really purchases the candidate? Certainly not the average voter. Today, enormous sums of money are needed in order to fund the advertising, marketing, public-image-management (and dirty tricks) campaigns that we call elections. It is said that representatives in the House have to raise an average of $100,000 per day when they are on recess in order to defend their seat every two years.

Wealthy contributors are the only ones who can really take advantage of this, gaining access and leverage that bring in financial windfalls that dwarf their contributions. For instance, the Bush administration allows big corporate contributors, like Enron, to help write the legislation that regulates them. Westar Energy contributed $25,000 to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority, and then requested and initially received a special exemption in an energy bill, which it wrote and DeLay supported.

Today, we have a system of government based on what comes dangerously close to legalized bribery. There is only one thing that can be done about it: We must radically change our electoral process — somehow, we must decommercialize it.

Unfortunately, the courts have ruled against banning political ads. So we must increase our efforts to institute a governmental agency that would force political ads to be scrupulously honest and accurate, both in fact and in spirit, before they could be released to the public. This would cut down considerably on the number of ads produced. Real debates and informative programming, not stylized sound-bite opportunities, could then be required. This might be the only way to institute meaningful campaign-finance reform. By preventing deceitful and misleading ads, we would curtail the need for the collection of enormous war chests because we would erase their reason for being.

Today, we are watching our democratic republic devolve into a crass, swaggering, self-deceiving empire. But surely we can summon the courage to fight against these anti-intellectual, authoritarian, fundamentalist forces before their revanchist fantasies erase whatever democratic future still remains. Radical Muslim terrorists are not democracy’s only enemy.

Vashon Island resident Philip Cushman has a doctorate in psychology and is a lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences program at the University of Washington, Tacoma.

© 2004 Seattle Times Company