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Opinion

Time for talk

We keep hearing about how polarized Americans have become,

but polls reveal impressive agreement among a majority of us with regard to

the major issues facing the country. What is surprising is that the majority

opinion differs starkly from the policies propounded and pursued by the party

and the candidate that the recent election put into office.

A Los Angeles Times poll found recently that many Americans (between 52 and

69 percent, depending on the issue) are skeptical about President George W.

Bush's proposed changes to Social Security, believe that the Iraq war has been

badly mismanaged and do not want the president's tax cuts made permanent if it

would worsen the deficit (which it would). Sixty percent say they believe that

improving the country's infrastructure would do more to stimulate the economy

than tax cuts. The Times reports that "an overwhelming majority of Americans

believes Washington is unlikely to make much progress on the country's key

problems."

And what of the "values" vote that we are told separates Americans on the

issues of gay marriage and abortion rights? A Gallup poll dispels this notion,

too. When asked to rate the importance of 18 issues facing the country, a

majority placed these two "values" issues at the bottom (16 percent and 19

percent respectively). Even more striking, a CBS/New York Times poll finds that

only 22 percent of respondents nationwide believe that abortion should be

illegal.

How can there be such a disjunction between the positions a majority hold

on the issues and the way a majority voted, three months after a presidential

election that aroused more passion than any in memory, in which basic questions

about the direction of the country were at stake?

I think the answer has something to do with a failure of public discourse.

The campaign aroused a lot of passion, but not a lot of discussion of the

policies that would result if one or the other candidate was elected, nor of

the effect these policies would have on citizens' lives.

What we had during the presidential campaign was not discourse but

marketing. Thanks to the dominance of television advertising, the campaign was

reduced to attempts to put forth a positive image of one candidate and a

negative image of the other. The only forums for substantive discussion were

the three televised debates, though even these were not really discussions but

snippets of condensed information, given the minutes-long allotment of time.

That Bush was elected even though everyone agreed that John Kerry had outshone

him in all three debates is evidence that marketing triumphed over discourse.

Rather than addressing the issues, the Bush campaign repeated two simple

mantras: Kerry is a flip-flopper and Bush will keep you safer in the face of

blinding fear of terrorism (fear that their campaign rhetoric stoked).

One of Kerry's biggest weaknesses, most political experts agree, was that

he talked about too many issues: He too should have chosen a single, simple way

to characterize his opponent and repeat it (such as "Bush is in over his

head," or "Bush is a liar").

But even with the campaign over, and the focus on capturing the White House

no longer pressing, the shutdown of discussion continues. In a stunning

rejection of the very notion of public debate, Bush recently declared in an

interview with The Washington Post, "Well, we had an accountability moment, and

that's called the 2004 election." With this, he sought to close the window for

public debate on the actions taken by his administration and their effects.

Another discourse-stopping tide has rolled in since Sen. Barbara Boxer

(D-Calif.) confronted Secretary of State-to-be Condoleezza Rice during her

confirmation hearings with Rice's own conflicting statements about the Iraq war

("I will not shrink from questioning a war that was not built on the truth")

and was accused by the nominee of "impugning my integrity." Boxer has since

been denounced for her forthright debate even by those who, like her, oppose

the war.

Perhaps most troubling is how little protest we hear against this stifling

of argument - from Democrats, from the press or from the person on the street.

The curtailing of discourse is taken for granted - as it was during the

presidential campaign - as the way we do business. Even though Rice was

approved last week by the Senate with more "no" votes than any Secretary of

State since World War II (a sign that dissent is not entirely dead), the

confirmation hearings were conducted with a sense of resignation that the

nominees would be approved no matter what.

What happened to the passion that we saw during the presidential campaign?

People I know who had never contributed to a political campaign did, and those

who had contributed gave more than ever before; people who had never actively

participated before became involved by leafleting, canvassing, registering

voters, making telephone calls and even traveling to swing states.

The activity seemed most intense among Kerry supporters, and it was driven,

I think, by the seriousness of the policies they objected to, policies that

were disliked even by many of those who voted for Bush (and whose interest in

the campaign was aroused mostly by fear of terrorism): the disastrous war, the

gigantic deficit, the increasing isolation of the United States in the

international community. And many who gave in so many ways to Kerry's campaign

were still outraged that the president had been placed in office not by a

majority vote but by a Supreme Court decision. They were energized by the

opportunity to do something to influence the political process, to change what

they believed was wrong.

The lack of passion that we see now results, at least in part, from a sense

that there is nothing we can do to change things we strongly object to. There

is a sense that we can't influence the working of government or even public

discourse. The congressional hearings, the talk-radio programs and the

television talk shows will grind on, with or without us.

We'd see instant improvement if our laws were brought in line with those of

France, Britain and Denmark, where paid political advertising is prohibited

and air time is provided free. (The free slots run 5 to 10 minutes, rather than

the 30 to 60 seconds of our high-priced ads.) This kind of programming would

encourage more serious discussion and also go a long way toward removing the

corrupting influence of campaign contributions, and the diversion of

candidates' attention as they are forced to become nonstop fundraisers.

But since that is unlikely to happen, we have to look elsewhere. I suggest

that we turn our attention to private discourse, our day-to-day conversations.

Here is where we could recapture some of the passion that was so much in

evidence during the campaign.

In much of the world, discussing - even arguing about - politics is a

popular pastime. For most Americans, talking about politics is considered

inappropriate, even unseemly, especially if the people you're talking to

disagree with you. I saw this when I was having lunch with my father and two

other residents at a senior living facility to which he had recently moved. My

father, who is European-born, asked in frustration, "Doesn't anyone talk

politics here?" The woman sitting with us set her lips and sealed her

expression. "I don't talk politics," she announced. It's part of the tradition

among many Americans of never telling anyone which choice you made inside the

voting booth.

When American college students go to study in Germany, according to a

colleague who helps students prepare for semesters abroad, they are taken aback

when their German counterparts try to engage them in heated political

arguments by challenging American foreign policy. The Americans clam up,

convinced that the German students are belligerent and rude, while the Germans

conclude that the Americans are apathetic and uninformed.

Our reluctance to risk conflict in conversation means that we aren't forced

to articulate, and therefore examine, the logical underpinnings of our

positions, and we rarely get the chance to engage in give-and-take with those

who hold views different from our own. Even worse, when young people don't hear

adults arguing politics, it reinforces their impression that politics has no

relevance to their lives. Surely this plays a role in the astonishingly low

voter turnout among young Americans.

If we could reframe our attitudes toward talking politics and bring the

subject back into our conversations, people might be reminded that elections

can influence policies that affect their lives.

Assumptions about the display of opposition vary widely from culture to

culture. Many cultures, such as the Japanese, avoid even mild forms of open

disagreement, but there are many others, including Mediterranean, East European

and African cultures, that value dynamic opposition as a form of sociability

and a show of willingness to engage with others. Americans with roots in those

cultures often enjoy a good argument; the rest of us can benefit from their

example.

I don't see much hope for improvement in our public discourse, given the

dominance of television which is, after all, an entertainment medium. But our

private conversations could provide an alternative source of political

engagement. We'd all be forced to educate ourselves about policy in order to

win more arguments. The conversations could stir our passions, motivate young

people, and result in citizens voting for the candidates whose policies

actually are in line with their own views on the issues that will have impact

on their daily lives.

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