Observers of American elections regularly bemoan the lack of substance in contemporary political campaigns. However, while the need for substance has been clearly articulated, the remedy is not so apparent. Meanwhile, a sea change in the conduct of American politics continues to increase the public's dependence on campaigns for political information. The traditional competition between parties has evolved into a clash of candidates. This clash increasingly occurs over the airwaves and through other means of direct contact, largely at the expense of previous mechanisms that mediated contact between politicians and the public. For voters, the campaign is the proximate source of information about the candidates and the most immediate influence on their decision. For candidates, the campaign offers the best opportunity to hear the public's voice, to clarify long-term goals, and to establish immediate political priorities. Thus, the lack of substance alarms citizens and scholars alike and underscores the importance of an investigation of the dynamics supporting substantive campaigns. In what follows, I attempt to expose the roots of this problem and then to isolate the factors that either elevate or debase campaign discourse.
My examination is built around a minimal standard for normatively acceptable campaigns, called dialogue. Simply put, dialogue means that when one candidate raises a subject, his or her opponent responds by discussing the same subject. The opposite of dialogue is ignoring, responding by discussing a different subject. I rely on the work of leading political theorists and social critics to build a case for using dialogue as the criterion to evaluate contemporary campaigns, arguing that the standards for public discourse they propose entail a minimal requirement for dialogue. The concept of dialogue then bridges the