I grew up knowing "squeaky clean Wisconsin" – a place known from coast to coast as a beacon of clean, open and accountable government. In the span of a single generation, we squandered the glorious inheritance that was passed down to us and our state slowly but surely became a political cesspool.
There are many reasons why Wisconsin's political culture changed so radically for the worse over the course of what, in historical terms, is a breathtakingly short period of time. But one cause of Wisconsin's fall from political grace stands out. It can be defined in a single word. Two letters, actually.
Television transformed our politics in two ways. First and most obviously, it is the driving force behind the non-stop money chase that has spawned the system of legalized extortion and bribery that is corrupting our government and undermining our democracy. A generation ago, candidates for state office worked the union halls and the Rotary Clubs and the newspaper editorial boards and knocked on thousands of doors and wore out one pair of shoes after another. Today, candidates routinely campaign 30 seconds at a time on TV. All those ads cost a fortune. Hence the average politician's canine appetite for campaign contributions.
Public officials turned into glorified collection agents for the TV stations is perhaps the most visible way television has poisoned politics. But TV has had another equally insidious effect on the political culture. It has made us dumber about civic matters.
We're undeniably more highly educated than past generations, but as a commentary in Sunday's Boston Globe illustrates, we're actually no better informed about government and politics than people were 40 or 50 years ago, and in some ways we're actually dumber. According to the article's author, who recently penned the book "Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter," a big part of the explanation for this paradox can be found in one word. Two letters, actually.
No force in our society has done more to turn politicians into whores than television. And nothing has contributed more to the citizenry's shallowness and superficiality.
We thought our way into the television age, and now we have to think our way out of the most numbing side effects of our addiction to TV. The Internet is no doubt part of the solution. But it remains to be seen whether we can really Facebook or YouTube our way out of the hole we've dug for our democracy. The jury is still out on what, if any, role newspapers will play. Our public schools have to provide part of the answer, as one of our recent blogs suggested. That goes for libraries too. What will become of them?
But regardless of what tools we use to do the job, the task at hand still comes down to reinventing citizenship.