Our future depends on improving the public dialogue
Wherever I go these days, people want to talk about how much trouble we have talking reasonably to one another about current public policy challenges. The quality of the public dialogue, they say our ability to reason with one another and to sort through issues is lamentable.
Al Gore's new book, The Assault on Reason, decries the decline of public discourse. In my view, he's hit a nerve.
And for good reason. Our political system is riddled with problems: cynicism and low voter turnout; intense partisanship; the outsized influence of money. But if Americans feel that we can't even set about fixing them because we're incapable of holding a discussion that isn't distorted by spin, misleading studies, media manipulation, 10-second sound bites, and accusations of suspect motives, then we've got a really serious problem.
It doesn't just affect efforts to reform the political system, of course. Woodrow Wilson once said, "I not only use all the brains I have, but all I can borrow." What was true in the early decades of the 20th century is even more true today. The complexity of the problems we confront, from how to handle our role in the world to how to fix our health care system to what to do about public education, demands that Americans of different beliefs and perspectives think together about what to do. No one individual or small group can know all there is to know.
Yet we suffer from a poor and superficial imitation of debate, often the equivalent of playground name-calling, rather than the deep exploration of challenges and their potential solutions that the times call for.
Our electronic media, in particular, is drawn by the quick-and-easy. You are far likelier to learn about a candidate's debate style, mannerisms, attire or expensive haircut than you are his or her ideas about fixing our health care system.
Yet in the end, I believe we have no one to blame but ourselves. Living in a democracy takes work, and if we want to enjoy its fruits, we have to labor a bit to prepare them.
I'm sometimes disappointed by how ready we Americans are to believe polls and studies and the assertions of those in authority, rather than to gather information, think for ourselves, and make discriminating judgments. If we want the quality of public dialogue to improve, then it's up to us to improve it and let our political leaders know we will no longer let them get away with offering inadequate solutions to difficult problems.
We can do this in several ways:
First, pay attention to reason and fact, not propaganda and half-truths. Don't accept an assertion of fact on its face. Obtain your information from a variety of sources.
Don't let yourself be diverted by fluff. We love the clutter of celebrity lives, gossip and the extraneous details of politics, but letting them dominate our attention has a real cost. This country has made serious mistakes over the last decade in no small part because we were distracted by the diversions we wanted to pay attention to, rather than focused on the issues we needed to pay attention to.
Listen to the experts, but make up your own mind. As the psalm says, "Put not your trust in princes."
Do not attack the motivations of adversaries. Give them the respect of speaking to the merits of their arguments.
Try to take a step back from ideology. Listen carefully to different sides in a debate, be prepared to see the logic in what people of different viewpoints have to say, and above all look for pragmatic approaches that work, not ideologically rigid approaches that don't comport with the real world.
Many Americans have simply checked out of the debate, and many others who do participate ignore these precepts. Among the great gifts of living in this country is the right to speak out, but that right carries with it a responsibility. All of us have the responsibility to work to increase the quality of the public dialogue. The future of our country is on the line.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.