Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Are Crack's Showing in American Democracy?

"Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel
the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense
with our peaceful methods and goals,
so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Dwight David Eisenhower's Farewell Address

Al Gore is arguing that democracy in the United States is in some peril due to the deterioration of public debate informing major policy decisions. He obviously has a point:
  • The United States went to war with Iraq based on arguments that that nation had weapons of mass destruction and was developing more and that it was supporting terrorist organizations that threatened the United States. Both points were wrong, and there were people who understood that both were wrong, but they did not come forth with that information, or if they did were not adequately heard.
  • The United States won the war against the Iraqi military, but managed the occupation badly. It didn't deploy enough troops and managed the Iraqi economy badly after the military engagement. There were people who understood the errors that were about to be made, and indeed the State Department had a set of plans for the post-invasion period, but the knowledge and plans were not utilized.
  • Global climate change is underway, driven importantly by greenhouse gas emisions, and it is but one of many aspects of the environmental degradation under way. Many know the reality of the situation, but the Bush administration can not be persuaded to move to correct the situation domestically, nor to negotiate ameliorating processes internatioally.
  • The U.S. government continues to have a large budget deficit and the United States a large foreign trade deficit. Economists recognize that the situation should be corrected, but nothing is being done to make the needed corrections.
  • Political leaders appear to be running for office permanently, and are more involved in spinning the message than in arguing the facts. Party discipline has increasingly come to suppress the willingness of politicians to speak out on the issues with new ideas.
  • Political campaigns have become so expensive that politicians need to be permanently engaged in fund raising, and can hardly afford to displease their major donors.
  • The media appears to be increasingly pandering to the tastes of a fragmented audience, as press rooms are melting away. Shock jocks, talking heads, and radio/TV evangelists are increasingly influential in the marketplace of ideas, rather than people who have made serious study of important issues.
Of course, part of this argument is specious. Looking back at a supposed golden age of democracy is to believe the myth rather than the reality of U.S. history. There have always been bad newspapers. Large parts of the U.S. electorate were uninformed in the past, voting the way the machines dictated rather than according to their reasoned opinions. Really bad policy decisions have been made in the past. On the other hand, the citizenry is more educated than ever before. The Internet has made information and knowledgeable opinion more available than ever before. Indeed, the amount of information for decision making and the available skills and tools for the application of reason are greater than ever before.

Still, I think Gore is right that there is a problem. In part, I think it is due to the way Congress has evolved. The vast majority of elected officials are reelected every election. Their districts elect people from the same party over and over, and the incumbents have better access to campaign finance due to their incumbency. Candidates respond to the party faithful in their districts and states rather than vying for the votes of those in the middle who can be swayed by argument and analysis. Parties enforce discipline as the best way to maintain power and office. Candidates market their candidacy rather than debate their interpretation of the facts and their implications, as the best way to gain and retain office.

Gore says, and I think he is right, that this can not be corrected simply by the election of the right president (although election of a president open to dissent who consciously uses the office to promote public debate on key issues would be a step in the right direction).

A more responsible media could help, were it to deepen the analysis of public issues and draw more on really knowledgeable commentators rather than on audience friendly news readers and "talking heads". It is hard to imagine the media making such changes in the absence of audience pressure to do so (although leadership of responsible journalists in the newsrooms and more civic minded publishers would be a step in the right direction).

Reform of our political systems would be an important step, to make elected officials more responsive to those in the electorate more concerned with the important issues of the day. It is hard to see politicians in power using that power to achieve the needed reforms (although Gore is himself showing that some politicians can and will speak out).

I suspect that we need an electorate that demands such reforms. How do we get one? Younger voters are less likely to read newspapers and news magazines than older ones, and the younger generations are those involved in multitasking -- whose short attention spans switch from subject to subject from moment to moment. Perhaps the key is to strengthen civics education for a generation or two, and develop a cadre of young citizens who will demand better of the media, the politicians, and the institutions of government.

But can our teachers train such students, and will our school systems allow them to? Perhaps the reforms have to start in teachers colleges and school boards.

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