Wow. Just wow. I’ve always considered myself very cynical about politics. After reading the comments following the publication of the first of the Ideas Matter! posts, I don’t feel quite so cynical anymore. I have muxed comments here with those on a thread on BC. It is depressing to see that so many people are more cynical than I am.
Christine, who commented on the original thread
"Ideas DO matter. Also CONTEXT matters! My question is, how do you force a culture who is trained to think in black and white, rich and poor, good and bad to look beyond shallow attributes of a candidate. I get seriously tired of how the media exploits the minor, shallow details to sway popular opinion and leaves the devil’s dirty details until it is too late… but what is the remedy to this???????!!??? Can you make a country nursed on Saturday morning cartoons, barbie dolls, spiderman and cocoa puffs give a rat’s ass about the details… the ideas? Am I just being cynical today? perhaps. Seriously… how do you make people truly listen and care???"
She later added:
"Is it possible, as a politician, to be clear and comprehensible? Don’t politicians take a vow of vagueness? Marketing and manufacturing skin deep reactions and ideas seems to be where it is at."
Alan, who commented only over on BC said:
"dismantling of the education system + dismantling of the media = pliable electorate
therefore, in terms of who ends up winning and where they take the country and its government, marketing and image matter more than Ideas."
Will commented on the post as well with:
"Seriously though, even if a speech like this speaks to us as individuals and even if we agree with the premises in it, the politics of implementing grand plans almost always prevents that implementation. I know I am more cynical than many about our government’s ability to do even 10% of what really should be done, but even a President with the best of intentions is prevented from putting most of their ideas into practice."
I can’t argue with any of these statements since they are all valid. However, I can say with conviction, that we, the American people, have the power in our hands to change these things. Christine and Alan both point to cultural problems inherent in getting citizens to pay attention to anything beyond the length of a sound bite. Almost anyone watching CNN or Fox News would recognize this problem and its impact on the news media.
I think this is simply laziness on the part of the news media and complacence on the part of the viewing audience. Major news sources in the US are profit driven. If people will accept a five minute discussion of Barack Obama’s choice to wear or not wear an American flag lapel pin or five minutes on the cost of John Edward’s haircut in lieu of five minutes dedicated to their positions on a bill under consideration in the Senate then that is what the news channel will provide.
It is cheaper and easier and safer to talk about emotional issues that do not have a solid right or wrong answer than it is to discuss a complex piece of legislation where there is honest to goodness pros and cons associated with the bill’s passage.
Recent years have shown that if presented well, people will sit and watch hour and a half long documentaries on on climate science, US gun laws, fundamentalist Christian summer camps, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Trade Policy and Globalization, Arab Language Journalism, and the nitty gritty of War in Iraq. People are open to learning about the world in depth when given the opportunity.
Historically, journalism has been a mix of telling consumers what they need to hear at least as often as what they want to hear. It was this role that led to the founders including freedom for the press in the First Amendment. There are still press agencies that do a decent job at presenting meaningful news coverage with context that makes the information they provide both meaningful and useful. There are lots of people who are grateful enough to cough up cash when their local NPR radio station runs a pledge drive. Mother Jones, The Nation, The Independent Media Center and other news sources online often provide coverage that is well researched and in-depth enough that after ten minutes reading you are prepared to evaluate a candidate’s positions or at least ask intelligent questions about those positions.
Will’s point about elected officials experiencing a great deal of trouble getting their policies implemented is also very valid. That was well illustrated by the speech I used in I.M. 1 That speech by Carter and the subsequent policies introduced did have an effect. We have never seen anything in the US like the energy crisis we experienced during those years. Carter was a Washington D.C. outsider and had trouble getting all of his ideas put into law. Eventually the oil embargoes ended and the price of petroleum dropped and people went back to thinking unlimited energy was forever. If Carter’s policies had been implemented, the US would be a stronger, cleaner, and wealthier nation today.
This implementation problem is linked to the first problem. Prior to now, its been hard to keep on top of whats happening in the Legislative branch of the US government. It was doubly challenging to follow "process issues" and the less sexy bills that don’t make the news papers or TV news. And there are a lot of these "below the radar" activities happening whenever Congress is in session.
Presidents do not make laws. They can suggest and they can veto, but it takes the Legislative folks to get things done. This basic fifth grade Civics lesson has been less obvious under the current administration. Bush’s signing statements, verbal attacks on legislators who question his policies, and funding requests for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the executive branch appear very powerful. It takes the leadership of a president working hand in hand with Congress to get anything accomplished. With site’s like the Participatory Politics Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation’ joint project, OpenCongress.org it is now easier than ever before to find out if your Senators and House members are voting for or against policies that matter to you. We can expect to see more transparency through the work of The Open House Project.
There is plenty of blame to go around for how we allowed our government to get into it’s current disreputable state but we have the tools we need to fix it. Attention span is always going to be an issue because its always easier to give your free time over to entertainment instead of policy information, but if enough people make it very clear to their legislators and keep in contact with their offices, we can make progress towards a better, more responsive, federal governement.