Modest Proposals for Increasing Civility in Election Season


By Stephen Hess

Brookings Institution

159 pp., $14.95

It's not exactly news that media coverage of America's political campaigns leaves almost as much to be desired as the way in which the candidates conduct them. Negative ads, dirty tricks, fatuous sound bites, spin-doctors, incessant poll-taking, and in-your-face talk shows are just a few of the sorry signs of our times.

Judith Martin (Miss Manners) puts it just right in her introduction to Stephen Hess's light-hearted yet perfectly serious book: "Everyone is now screaming for civility. Of course if everyone would stop screaming, we might have it."

In a series of brief essays enlivened by reprints of the decade's best political cartoons, Hess succinctly analyzes many of the problems besetting our woefully uncivil political discourse.

Hess displays a clear understanding of the chicken-and-egg relationship between the way campaigns are run and the way they're reported. Politicians focus on polls, strategy, and image-enhancement instead of grappling with real problems like foreign policy, employment, the environment, or the balance of trade. Meanwhile, journalists devote their time to analyzing polls, campaign strategy, and whether a given politician is "winning or losing." Hess blames this "horse race" mentality on the fact that journalists find such stories easy to write.

Addressing itself to politicians, journalists, and the general public, "The Little Book of Campaign Etiquette" offers a number of constructive ideas for improving this state of affairs. Noting that voters are deluged with stories about presidential campaigns, but with very few about candidates for state and local offices, Hess suggests free television time for the latter. And, after thoughtfully discussing the pros and cons, he offers a persuasive argument in favor of nongovernment watchdog groups as a means of monitoring the media.

Some of Hess's suggestions are based on ideas that have already been successfully translated into practice, such as Minnesota's news council. Others are simply a combination of civility and common sense.

As Martin points out in her introduction, there is an important difference between rules and laws. As the unwritten, nonbinding rules of civility and courtesy are increasingly ignored and scorned, society begins feeling the need to restrain offensive behavior by enacting laws and regulations that often seem intrusive. The Clinton administration's sponsorship of workplace regulations designed to stop employers' sexual harassment of employees is a good example of this.

To return to the older, milder system of social disapproval, however, requires that we stop admiring rudeness, self-promotion, and lack of self-restraint as signs of gutsiness and start respecting those who respect others.

* Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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