Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dialogue and Democracy

I've been troubled for a while by the suspicion that Americans are largely uniformed and uninterested in political philosophy.  Of those who even bother to vote, most seem to do so more out of tribalism than a real understanding of the differences between the two major parties, the difference between liberalism and conservatism.  As far as this goes, they likely really on intra-party/movement talking points, culled from friends and family with whom they agree.  The remaining portion of voters, the ones who take an active interest in politics, are likely the consumers of political news and information.  These people absorb the messaging and then pass it along to the former group.  These tend to be each party's "base", with more extreme views, and more of an interest in campaigning for particular representatives and issues.  They are very influential in essentially driving each parties narrative.

According to a 2009 Pew survey, most people get their news from television.

Now, if people actively interested in politics are going to be more influential among the wider population of voters, it is important to determine what kind of news they are getting.  According to the Pew research, the largest portion of news consumption (40%) by all Americans came from major cable news outlets.  I think it is safe to say that a large proportion of these viewers are going to be the politically active folks.  The survey didn't break down which portion of cable news people were watching.  Although much of the daily programming could be considered softer, more objective and less partisan news coverage, I think it's probably safe to say that a much larger portion of these news watchers are going to be political active, and paying particular attention to the partisan stuff.

So what you have now is a relatively small, but highly influential group of viewers digesting partisan news coverage, sharing it with peers, and then getting representatives elected and issues voted on that information.  Thus, the importance of the media in general, but major cable news outlets in particular.

Conservatives have long felt that most media outlets - the "mainstream" media has for a long time had a liberal bias.  While this is likely true, liberals have had their own critique that the media is biased towards established interests, which tend to be the powerful.  The reality is that - whatever the bias - the major cable outlets are having a substantial impact on political discourse.  In recent years, FOX news has taken a dominant place as the go-to news source for politically active conservative voters.  More recently, MSNBC has sought to carve out a similar niche for itself among politically active liberal voters.  Interestingly, the actual daily ratings for each news outlet are a very small segment of the population.  FOX news averages around 2 million viewers, while CNN and MSNBC average about a quarter of that.  Of the 2008 voting population of 130 million, this represents 1.5% and .4% of voters, respectively.

So like it or not, these news outlets, as small their audiences may be, have a lot of influence over what becomes politically important.  This is evidenced by the regularity in which talking points that come out of these outlets, whether from the mouths of politicians or pundits, seem to "take on a life of their own", and quickly enter the national conversation.  Therefore for those interested in a national political discourse that is reasonable, honest and well-informed, what goes on on these shows should be very important.

So where can you find reasonable political debate today?  Unfortunately, not many places.  This is basically what you'll find on news outlets:
  • Political horseracing (CNN)
  • One-sided, unreasonable polemics (FOX, MSNBC)
  • Airing of talking points (weekend shows, PBS)
  • Occasional references to political dischord (ABC, CBS, NBC nightly news)
Where is the back and forth, point for point discussion by reasonable partisans, where not only are principles understood in context, but parties are remotely open to new ideas?  Sadly, this doesn't really exist.  Whether it is because of constraints of the format (the rapid news cycle, lagging audience interest), lack of reasonable punditry or simple incompetence and disinterest, this just doesn't exist on television.  Even the shows in which the format was supposed to encourage two partisan sides to debate, the dialogue often devolved into both sides simply spouting talking points and partisan rhetoric, neither side interested in context or assumptions, or truly understanding the other's point of view.  The end result is that the public is no more informed, and in fact may have had their own misguided partisan views hardened by the increased acrimony they now feel as the "other" side seems ever more out-of-touch with their ideas.

So what is the antidote?  I'm not convinced that the format won't allow for reasoned debate.  I think there is  a strong audience for it.  Many people say they can't stand watching cable news because it is either A) dumbed down and uninteresting, or B)shrill and unproductive.  I think people inclined to be interested in politics have a natural hunger for engagement with the issues, and would love to see not only their side well represented, but the other side respond with genuine interest and understanding.  If a network really wanted to offer this format to their viewers, they could easily do so.  But first they would have to find capable pundits. 

Unfortunately, most on air pundits - either because they have been trained to do so or it is simply in their nature - do not engage in reasonable debate.  Chances are a new slate would have to be found.  Fortunately, the blogosphere is the perfect antidote.  While many bloggers may not be "ready for prime time", as it were, there are at least a great variety who are thoughtful, reasonable, and often quite expert.  They could be recruited quite easily, simply by setting up a skype connection you could have them broadcasting in minutes.  The added bonus of blogger punditry is that, while most will not have the sources that established pundits do, this would seem more of a benefit than a drawback.  Often times what passes for commentary is simply cynical insider horseracing on who has the advantage over who, instead of what is true and what isn't, or whether it should even mater.

A good place to start this model is a super vidoqo favorite,  While they do have a somewhat liberal bias in their selection of bloggers, they always tend to be reasonable, and they attempt to have good dialogues between opposing views.  In particular, their weekly show ("diavlog") The Week In Blog, hosted by Matt Lewis and Bill Scher, offers a great look into the development of political commentary on the internet from both the right and left.  While they generally don't get into philosophical debate, allowing the commentary to speak for itself, they do offer a broad analysis of where the political thought on the internet is at.  This format could be a sort of jumping-off point for a variety of more in-depth and substantive conversations on political philosophy.  At the very least, it would serve to diffuse the rampant misinformation and spin that currently dominate major cable news outlet programming.

As the nations seems more partisan than ever, with people literally geographically separating themselves along political lines, the opportunities for real political dialogue seem to be shrinking.  The effect this has on democracy is corrosive.  The citizenry is too caught up in acrimony to compromise, and begins to lose sight of what really matters.  Political thought becomes more easily manipulated, and echo-chambers grow stronger.  When faced with the big questions, we seem paralyzed by mistrust and cynicism.  Most people may never have more than a passing interest in politics.  But to the extent that their opinions are formed in tandem with the more politically active consumers of news and information, honest and reasonable political dialogue is more important than ever.

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