The days after

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NOW THAT THE election is over, it's back to ugly reality: Many states suffer from crumbling, poorly funded public services, escalating prison bills that vie with schools for funds and other financial woes.

That's not to mention the 60 million Americans for whom health insurance is a sometime thing; or the welfare system that's not working; or the growing divisions among the races.

But after this season of diversion and unprecedented political garbage from those who would be the political leaders, even the unpleasantness of that sort of reality may be refreshing -- in part at least because it is about real things.

Tuesday's elections, unfortunately, will have lasting consequences that will make all those problems that much tougher. Around the country, this was a multimillion-dollar diversion: a fanning of anger, a play to cynicism, a Gingrichian reversion to Reaganomic fantasies, another lunge at government and criminal justice by autopilot, another torrid California dance with xenophobia.

The paranoid style in American politics is hardly new. But rarely has its tone been so pervasive, and reasoned alternatives so conspicuous by their absence. This was the first election in our history where the in-your-face rhetorical style and attitudes of the talk shows, until recently limited to the darker reaches of our national discourse, dominated so many campaigns, in many cases even campaigns for local office. Marion Barry and Oliver North were a matched set.

The conventional rendering of all this was anger against Washington, but anyone who looks at the stuff on which people voted Tuesday -- a Proposition 13 in South Dakota, supermajority requirements to raise taxes or increase spending in some other states, term limits on state officials in still others -- it's fairly clear NTC that the objects of public wrath are broader than Washington, broader even than "government."

No institution, neither government nor the media, neither the universities nor the churches, is exempt. Nor, again counter to the conventional wisdom, is this a case of liberal against conservative. The real conservatives in this dispute are those who would preserve the accountability of government and those who are elected to run it, to protect the discretion of judges, not lock them all into mechanical requirements that drive good people out and make it harder and harder to set priorities. Real conservatism does not launch a tax-cut bidding war without specifying what spending will be cut as well. One California politician recently declared he would reduce gridlock in Congress by imposing a supermajority requirement to increase taxes. When democracy undoes democracy, what do we call the result?

Saddest of all, for the past few months hardly anyone has talked about the future, or about children, or about the nation's potential. In California, the only children who were part of headline politics were the 300,000 that the governor and the sponsors of Proposition 187 want to throw out of school. What of the other 5.2 million children in California's neglected public schools; what of the playgrounds that we -- and they -- could once take for granted, the swimming pools, the libraries?

Until a decade ago, even Republicans in this state could be assumed to be strong supporters of the public schools. But the )) Republican Party seems now to be the voucher party, the party that will support school construction only if it's matched against prison construction. One of the candidates who ran for California state superintendent of schools ended up running as a crime-fighter.

Elections are supposed to be debates about issues, and, wherever possible, to suggest some resolution of those issues. But this election has made the resolution of our problems harder. It has fostered more evasion and political irresponsibility. Who will vote with the greatest enthusiasm for still tougher penalties, lower taxes, and that great illusion -- the balanced-budget amendment?

At the state level, yesterday's California election took another $3 billion-plus and locked it away with those three-time losers, thereby making the state's fiscal crisis that much harder to solve, and assuring that there will be fewer places in the state's colleges, and that the tuition will be higher and the quality lower. More long prison sentences are the only clear mandate our leaders have been left with.

Increasingly we are living with a Gresham's law of political information, where prejudice, rumor, slogan and innuendo drive out balance, reflection and reason, and where complexity and qualification are themselves suspect.

In the talk-show world, those things are celebrated as great triumphs of democratic communication: On the radio, they say, the people learn things the establishment doesn't want them to know. But serious public issues can't be resolved through the exchange of misinformation, simple solutions and mechanical fixes. The world's history is full of unhappy societies that have tried and dismally failed.

Peter Schrag wrote this for the McClatchy News Service.

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