Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist
Thoughtlessly dancing around substance
Partisanship and tough, principled fights are part of the American fabric, writes editorial columnist Lynne K. Varner. But the ignorance and lack of substance that passes for discourse? Not so much.
Seattle Times editorial columnist
Some good ought to come from the paroxysms of blame and self-doubt in the wake of the Tucson shootings and it ought to be a public fed up with political vitriol and simplistic slogans out of a mistaken belief that it can't handle substance.
The public is smarter than it sometimes acts.
"If everybody in America had a Ph.D., politicians and the media wouldn't speak to the public the way they do," says Rick Shenkman, Seattle author of "Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter."We don't need to rush en masse back to school; we do need to reject the meaningless slogans and polarizing arguments that serve as political discourse. Politicians fear nuanced arguments are akin to extending an olive branch to the schoolyard bully. But the public doesn't want fighters, it wants thinkers.
Shenkman is a historian who has done enough research on voter ignorance that he launched Vote iQ, a website devoted to basic information such as telling you who your elected officials are, to more complex stuff like the size and history of the federal deficit and the earmarks pushed by your U.S. senator.
It isn't that ignorance turns us into murderous loons, but it does leave us vulnerable to the radio and television shock jocks who have no higher goal than to work us into a frenzy.
Shenkman says 95 percent of how this country works and the issues it faces is considered too complicated for broad public discussion. The remaining 5 percent is boiled into overly broad arguments.
If anything, let's change that. Forget pacts to play nice and debate in dulcet tones. Partisanship and tough, principled fights are part of the American fabric. But the ignorance and lack of substance that passes for discourse? Not so much.
What if the public demanded education-reform debates go beyond warnings about international competitiveness on one side and the ills of standardized testing. I think the public could handle it if we moved to the more important, albeit very academic, issues around what kids should know and how teachers can tell when they know it.
What if the health-care debate went beyond debates about government's overreach to whether or not denying coverage to noncitizens actually solves anything. It helps mollify an angry public to single out this group, but it pretends we're too dumb to know that these policies merely shift the financial burden to emergency rooms and doctors who aren't weighing their Hippocratic oaths against patients' ability to pay.
After all, mourning the death of Christina Taylor Green, the sweet 9-year-old girl killed in the shooting rampage, is an easy call. But if we mourned the death of every child who died because of limited or no access to health care, we'd drown in our own tears.
Instead we dance around the substantive issues and politicians play to our emotions.
"We talk about the basic stuff, and that which anybody can have an opinion about, whether they know anything or not," Shenkman said.
No wonder people begin to shout to be heard above the din. And, of course, the Internet has made it possible for the most incorrect and far-off points to speed across a vast echo chamber to the ears of the uninformed and sometimes to the ears of the dangerous.
Even absent a physical danger, there is the danger of a mean-spirited debate evolving into mean policies.
"I wouldn't say we're getting meaner," counters Rep. Glenn Anderson, an Eastside Republican. "But we haven't been as thoughtful about the consequences," of the public's demands and resulting legislative policies. For example, a state budget billions in the red deserves a larger response than cuts.
"Just cutting a number to balance a ledger, that doesn't get us anywhere," Anderson says. But a more fruitful debate about where the state is headed remains elusive beyond a few informed circles.
Once the public takes being informed seriously and demands to be treated as though they can read a budget and care about issues beyond their household, politicians and the media will follow suit.
Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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