Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Closing of the American Mind

My former law school classmate, Evan Thomas (pictured at left), has a column in the latest Newsweek ( that looks at the huge problem of American voters tuning out and not fulfilling their duty to be informed citizens. Uninformed voters are easy prey for demagogues of both the left and the right, but particularly those of the right who seek to claim that God and the Bible back their viewpoints. While I recognize the problem, I do not understand the mindset of the soccer moms and others whole live in a myopic world oblivious to issues that ultimately immensely impact their lives.

In contrast to this political oblivion, my family has always discussed politics and I recall many a family reunion on my dad's side of the family in particular where the political "discussion" became very, very loud at times. My family has always been blessed with many individuals with strong opinions who are NOT reluctant to voice their views (so I guess I come by it genetically), frequently do not wholly agree with one another and have their reasoned argument to back their view. Equally, there has always been a sense within the family that it is one's responsibility to stay informed on issues and politics and then go out and vote responsibly. In fact, my 80 year old mother told me while I was in Charlottesville that she has recently subscribed to additional publications "so that she can keep up on the presidential campaign politics." Likewise, when I visited my 92 year old aunt just before Christmas, the conversation included a lively discussion of the presidential candidates and their positions on issues. What can I say - that's my family. In any event, here are some of Evan's remarks and observations:

There are, as they say, two Americas. There is the America of the rich and the America of the poor, as Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards likes to point out. There is the America of Red States and Blue States, populated, as columnist Dave Barry likes to joke, by "ignorant racist, fascist, knuckle-dragging NASCAR-obsessed, cousin-marrying, road-kill-eating, tobacco-juice-dribbling, gun-fondling, religious fanatic rednecks" and "godless unpatriotic pierced-nose Volvo-driving France-loving leftwing Communist latte-sucking tofu-chomping holistic-wacko neurotic vegan weenie perverts."

But the real divide, the separation that may matter more to the future of American democracy, is between the political junkies and everyone else. The junkies watch endless cable-TV news shows and listen to angry talk radio and feel passionate about their political views. They number roughly 20 percent of the population, according to Princeton professor Markus Prior, who tracks political preferences and the media. Then there's all the rest: the people who prefer ESPN or old movies or videogames or Facebook or almost anything on the air or online to politics. Once upon a time, these people tended to be political moderates; now they are turned off or tuned out.

It's axiomatic that democracies need an informed and engaged citizenry. But America's is indifferent or angry. The causes of this divide—between the angry and the indifferent, the news junkies and the politically disaffected—are varied, deep-seated and, unfortunately, hard to cure. The evolution of the two parties has hardened ideological divisions and driven away moderates.
[T]he middle of the 20th century was a bit better on the question of cooperation. Back then the political parties tried to be big tents. The Democrats numbered conservative Southerners as well as liberal Northerners. The Republicans had some big-city liberals as well as rural conservatives. But then, starting in the 1960s, when Presidents Kennedy and Johnson bravely embraced civil rights, Southern conservatives deserted the Democrats. By the '80s, Democratic strength was centered in the big cities and along the coasts, and liberal interest groups had taken over the party. Neither party tried as hard to reach out to the ideologically diverse.
In his book, Prior shows that developments in broadcasting lie at the heart of some disheartening trends in American political life. Today, the evening news shows draw about 10 percent of the viewing audience. For the political junkies, the offerings are much more bounteous than in 1970: not only 24-hour news channels but an infinitely expanding blogosphere.
There is a faint clamor for leaders who will transcend "business as usual" and unite, rather than divide, the country. With about three out of four Americans saying the nation is headed in the wrong direction, and both Congress and the president drawing historically low approval ratings, this might be a good time to find common ground to look for far-reaching solutions. The presidential candidates by and large at least give lip service to "coming together," though at the same time their cynical operatives are usually maneuvering to drive voters further apart with "wedge issues" and negative advertising. Americans could, of course, reject this hypocrisy and demand the sort of leadership that reaches across the political aisle to accomplish hard tasks. But first they will have to switch off the Xbox or click away from the Home Shopping Network or "Girls Gone Wild" and go out and vote.

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