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Monday, November 26, 2007

The degradation of democracy

One of the most dubious notions circulating in America is that voting and participating in political life is a virtue. Try selling that line to young people.

Political commentators are going through their election cycle ritual of bemoaning the fact that young people vote in such low numbers. Campaign advisors rub their hands and drool at the thought of getting these large numbers of people into the voting booths and, of course, voting for their party. The assumption is that the young people of America are too preoccupied with frivolity and the concerns of the young to bother with politics and voting.

It never seems to occur to political operatives and activists that they might be the reason young people and many not-so-young have such little interest in politics. In its assumption that personal attack is the rhetorical currency of campaigning and political discussion, the political class does not appear capable of considering that what passes for politics in American life is something that many people find offensive and prefer to avoid.

A former contributor to this blog recently made the point that our current political system does not address the real issues affecting people, but turns all discussion into petty, mean, and viciously partisan fury. She pointed out that blogs nearly always end up attacking the personality and character of other people for what they believe. Bloggers, she said, think that the ad hominem attack is the only form of political discourse.

Comments by students and young professionals I have worked with recently show what they consider most absurd and degrading about politics.

  • Global warming. Turning global warming into a partisan issue seems to be the ultimate inanity among the thinking classes. All scientific theory must go through the process of hypothesizing, criticizing, testing, and refining. That, by definition, is what science is. The presumptuous, ignorant, and error-filled opinions on global warming sent down from the Ministry of Truth and circulated by the true party members contributes nothing to the information and understanding of global warming. Specious discussion stands in the way of resolving the scientific issues.

  • Abortion. The most anti-abortion young people I have associated with think he issue has long since gone beyond the point where rational discussion about it is possible. All that can be said has been said. It is now a matter of one group of people imposing their sectarian beliefs on others. The absurd level to which the subject has fallen is demonstrated by the proposal to introduce an amendment to the Colorado Constitution which declares that fertilized eggs are human life. A young engineer who is a devout Roman Catholic and opponent of abortion says this is like saying that a hunk of iron ore is a skyscraper. As long as this issue dominates political discussion, other issues will not receive constructive attention.

  • Stem cell research. Tied to the abortion issue, stem cell research has been assailed with ignorance, misinformation, and notional opinions. Sectarian beliefs have intruded into scientific protocols. When two universities announced that their scientists had managed to replicate stem cells from non-embryonic tissues, the news was hailed as a great breakthrough. Tt was significant from the scientific standpoint, but the celebrators neglected the full story. While the non-embryonic stem cells have the potential for the reparative work that embryonic stem cells can do, they also tend to form cancer cells, which the researchers at this point do not know how to control or even know if they can be controlled. The issue of medical promise has been submerged under the issues of sectarian, partisan dogma. More research on both types of cells is the only way to determine the real potential, and partisan bickering and blockage promise to impede that work.

  • War on Iraq. The partisan cant is that people who do not support the war on Iraq are unpatriotic, disrespectful of our troops, and soft on terrorism. The issues of why we really went to war in Iraq, the cost in American lives, and the cost in national resources cannot be discussed without arousing the partisan furies. Even though about two-thirds of the nation find the war wasteful and ineffective in establishing democratic principles in Iraq, the Ministry of Truth reduces the discussion to accusations of treason, betrayal, and weakness. Even Congress is cowed by the Ministry’s ability to malign anyone who questions the validity and conduct of this war.

  • Health care. The raising of a national health insurance immediately inspires shouts of “the sky is falling” and “socialism.” A young person found out that subscribing to his company’s health insurance plan would reduce his take-home pay by one-third and would put him under a plan administered by an HMO. What difference does it make, he asked, if my health care is administered through a government agency or an HMO? They are both bureaucracies? He asked if universal health insurance might not be more affordable. But that is not how the issue is treated by the partisans.

  • Big government. The size of government is not an issue with many young people. Most people do not want government intruding into their personal lives, but they want government to build the country and to keep them free and insure equal opportunity and justice. The issue is not big government, but good government. The contradictions between claims for less intrusive government and warrant-less wire-tapping and surveillance are not lost on a majority of citizens.

  • Energy. To many, America is being held hostage by the oil industry and its suppliers. Conservation and pollution of the environment are integral aspects of energy policy. But as long as there is a sectarian divide between carbon-advocates and tree-huggers, there will be no constructive discussion leading to a solutin.

  • Education. Why is everybody except the parents and teachers proposing the plans for our education systems? Young people, especially college students, question who is measuring their inadequacies when no one is measuring the inadequacies of the political schemes that presume to educate them.

The very form in which we discuss these issues seems to preclude and productive ideas and decisions about them. In many ways we are as deadlocked in our culture as the Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq are in theirs. But that is politics in our day and age.


1 comment:

Douglas said...

Interesting as usual.

It is however a bit hypocritical of politicians to bemoan the personal attacks when they themselves spend most of their ad money on promoting their personal irrelevant attributes instead of on intelligent issue formation and discussion.

George McGovern almost always seemed to me to put primary emphasis on issues. He did not exploit his personal war story even though he was portrayed as practically being a peacenik commie sympathizer.

I think the lesson from that was learned altogether too well by political operatives who now drive campaigns and candidates.

Our nation is really in a terrible mess and we are not served well by politicians who think citizens deserve the "mushroom" treatment and they can portray themselves as being on all sides of every issue.

For a thirsty man, fog is not a substitute for a drink of good clean clear water.

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