Divided We Vote -- It's a Tie!

by Carolyn Chase

hether we like it or not, whether it's fair or not, whether it's the greatest system ever invented or not, the democratic system of the United States requires disparate political groups to come together in order to gain power. Interests must unite to win.

To some degree, only by coming together and uniting can you share the rewards of consolidated power. "United we stand, divided we fall."

The Republicans learned this lesson well from the previous cycle. They got their fundamentalist wings more or less under control -- or at least out of the spotlight. Also, many religiously-oriented volunteers were burned by the lack of results of their political activism in the last cycle. Eschewing the corruption of politics in general, many have returned to saving souls instead of recruiting for politicians. Amen.

Pat Buchanan did his part by riding off into the political wilderness to seek supporters in non-battleground states. His strategy seemed to be to try to get to 5% of the voters, to qualify for federal matching funds, without too many of the rest of us noticing.

Ralph Nader, on the other hand -- constant crusader -- relished his role as spoiler for Al Gore.

The Democrats didn't even seem to realize they had a problem with Nader dividing workers and environmentalists. "Nader's Raiders" turned into "Nader's Traitors" in some circles.

The world of "green voting" can be confusing in the extreme. A lot of people like to think of themselves as environmentalists, but that doesn't mean they vote that way. Reasonable people can disagree on solutions to complex environmental problems. Unfortunately, too many still think it doesn't matter, or it doesn't matter to them.

Political expenditures by environmental groups aren't even big enough to warrant their own lobbying category at tracking sites such at "opensecrets.org." The vast majority of environmental groups are nonprofit educational groups and cannot do politics the same way that business groups do.

Environmentalist cultures are rife with factions and divisions. Diversity is valued over unity, and this is healthy, to some degree. But this could be their political undoing in a system requiring unity to achieve power.

Increased communications diversity and basic individual empowerment have spawned a plethora of groups divided according to personal preferences. The experience of uniting behind a cause and working productively with people of differing beliefs for the common good seems rare indeed in today's world.

In the "voting commons," a sufficient number of individual environmentalists voted their ideals -- because in their heart of hearts, they know that Ralph is right about the corruption of the system. These voters feel they justifiably turned their back on the incremental if that progress that the two-party system offers. Nader voters voted their own views of perceived self-interest, directly contrary to the idea of uniting in order to gain power.

Some argue that there is no such thing as green voting. You'd certainly not discover much about it by surveying the national media coverage this year.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, an initiative by journalists concerned about the standards of the news media (www.journalism.org), has analyzed media coverage of the 2000 presidential campaign. Their most recent survey, from the last week of September to the third week in October, found the coverage was overwhelmingly (57%) about internal politics of campaigning.

Of the more than 1,100 stories studied, they found 61 recurring themes. These were grouped into 11 broad categories to identify the nature of the coverage.

Just one in three (29%) dealt with issues and 13% dealt with the candidates' character and record. The four most popular themes were all related to the politics of campaigning: the most popular (22%) was assessments of the debates, both before and after those events. Second was coverage of battleground states (15%). Next came campaign strategies (12%), followed by momentum and media (8%). Only then did they find themes relating to policy or character.

Foreign policy, driven by the crisis in the Middle East, and Bush's character (especially as it related to his record in Texas) each accounted for 7% of stories. The next three themes were also character or policy related, comprising 6% each of stories: Gore's character, health care and elderly, and various domestic issues. These were followed by the themes of taxes and energy, both of which made up 5% of stories.

Energy could be an environmental story, but it's seldom covered that way.

A study earlier in the cycle concluded, "The news media are offering the public a fine education in campaign tactics but telling them little about matters that actually will affect them as citizens. [T]he reporting is overwhelmingly focused on the internal tactics and strategies of the campaigns."

Sara Fritz, Washington bureau chief of the St. Petersburg Times, summed it up during a project-sponsored panel discussion at the National Press Club: "They end up writing stories for each other and for the candidates."

The dominant culture of political coverage has become a mutant-cross between sports play-by-play and beauty pageant commentary.

But no one forces us to tune-in. We just can't resist a spectacle -- especially one with real life power and drama. We just shouldn't base our voting decisions on it.

SDET editor Carolyn Chase is Chair of the City of San Diego Waste Management Advisory Board, and a founder of San Diego EarthWorks and the Earth Day Network.