The meeting still seems very vivid, even years later. I had traveled from Maine to our nation’s capital to be there. It was in the conference room of a national grassroots organization; one of the groups that everyone agrees is made up of good folks. We were designing a course to teach first-time political candidates how to campaign ethically and still win. All of us had campaign experience.

“Candidates need to get their message out in new ways,” one person said. Another said, “They need help crafting their message.” Still another threw in, “They need to look at their message and who it will resonate with.”

What was all this talk about message?

The notion of a “message” has become so ingrained in politics that it is received wisdom — and that wisdom has crossed over to the population at large. Everyone, it seems, understands “message.” People vote for candidates “because they like their message.” People complain that Democrats “no longer have a coherent message.” People vote — or don’t — in order to “send a message,” as if the ballot box were at Western Union and not the local elementary school.

This is a problem for two reasons:

1. It diminishes the importance of the choice I make. If I am choosing between messages, then that means that whoever has been more technically skilled at campaigning will get my vote. It’s really like choosing Pepsi over Coke because I like the words “new generation” more than “real thing.”

2. But, worse still, it turns the public square into simply a machine to generate electoral power. It treats citizens as simply means to an end: election. They are not “citizens,” they are “voters.” And it assumes that what I stand for does not matter; what matters is how I talk about it.

Our abilities to campaign — our campaign technologies — have far outstripped our ability to keep up with them ethically. And I don’t mean the Internet. I mean the way we think about promotion and marketing. We are so skilled at promotion and marketing that we are playing with fire. In the marketplace, this has no worse consequence than the ability to make mediocre movies into blockbusters simply on the strength of the marketing campaign. Think here of the Matrix franchise.

But, in the public square, our skills at marketing and promotion have dire results. Recall my friends in the meeting I attended, worrying about how best to teach message development. Almost anyone can be elevated to a position of seeming leadership and, given the right confluence of events, can be placed in power — all on the power of their marketing campaign and regardless of their fundamental fitness for office, skills, abilities, qualifications or even temperament. Think of Governor-elect Schwarzenegger, who won California’s recall election not on the strength of anything he had done, or of any principles on which he had built his life or claimed to follow. His success was built on the effectiveness of two messages: 1) “The economy is bad and it is the current administration’s fault;” and 2) “Things ought to change.” And the citizens of California responded. In the words of one analyst recently, “As voters wanted, the recall brought change. But change to what? Now come the bigger questions. . . .” This is just one example; there are many more.

In the last decade, there has been a massive explosion in “media literacy.” Audiences are sophisticated about things they never used to give a thought to. Woe betide the candidate who lets him- or herself appear tired, or at all disheveled — when production values are lost, the public turns away.

While we are technically adept at examining how well a candidate speaks on the stump, we fail to examine what she or he says. Strangely, it is our very sophistication that has blinded us to reality. We’re too savvy for our own good.

As the presidential campaigns of 2004 switch into high gear, let us look less at how the campaigns are run, and think more about what they are saying. Let 2004 be a year that we get just a little less smart.