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Politics Today: The Demise of Intellect, The Death of Issues

Education or Stupidity
Politics Today: The Demise of Intellect, The Death of Issues

Politicians don’t elect themselves, voters do. It is up to the voters to elevate the debate and put the focus on issues. It’s the only way real change begins.

Almost three out of four Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. Congressional approval hovers near all-time lows, and a substantial majority believe that all current elected officials should be ousted. While there is nothing new here, the blame is being focused in the wrong place and on the wrong people.

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

Literally translated from the Latin, “after therefore because of it” is quite often a logical fallacy. The assumption being that simply because something happens after something else the latter is caused by the former. But in our current political climate it is not a misjudgment, it is in fact remarkably accurate.

Americans have, in large part, understandably become angry and ignorant, but it is long past time for a serious self-examination. It is not the media and it is not the politicians who are to blame for the country’s plight, it is society itself. To hold the media culpable or to denounce the very people the voters elected is misleading, at best, and disingenuous, at worst. The level of untruthfulness is not as important as deciding if voters are willing to take an active role in the process or continue to stand on the sidelines and just point fingers.

Now many will argue, “I do take an active role, I vote” but that’s not enough if you genuinely want to alter the path our country is headed. Voting is one small part of the process, and it occurs somewhere in the middle. It can be neither the beginning nor the end of one’s involvement. Rather it must be an action preceded by critical thinking and followed by ongoing engagement. In short, it requires effort.

The Demise of Intellect

Regardless of how it happened, disgust beget apathy or exasperation caused lethargy, the vast majority of Americans have abandoned the pursuit of intellect. It is impossible for ill-informed, easily swayed voters to elect people who can then make constructive decisions after taking office. Only a knowledgeable electorate can compel candidates to speak to the issues and forego the “sound bite mentality” of current campaigning.

To be clear, it doesn’t take 100 million tenured professors in political science to establish a deliberate and issue-oriented electoral process. All it takes is a realignment of priorities, an acceptance of personal accountability, and a small investment of time. As a society the tools exist and the fundamental abilities are in place, they just have to be rechanneled.

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Noam Chomsky once observed (emphasis by the author):

When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on.

These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality which is beyond belief.

Chomsky’s point strikes at the heart of the problem. It’s not that we lack the skills to be educated, it’s that we’ve made a conscious decision to use them elsewhere. Now I am certainly not suggesting that everybody should abandon pursuits of learning in areas they find enjoyable, nor am I proposing that politics should even be the top area of such pursuits. I am, however, assuredly opining that without a greater effort set forth by a majority of Americans to seek a higher level of political thought, there can never be change.

A lazy and uneducated group of voters can never be expected to elect anything but a group of manipulative and irresponsible politicians. But a group of truly engaged and informed voters can elect, and then hold accountable, an assemblage of effective and responsible representatives.

The Death of Issues

2016 has set a new low in campaigning, and while it’s again easy to point at the candidates and the media and argue they are to blame, reality is just not so. Candidates, by their very nature, will always respond to the wants of would-be supporters. The media will forever chase ratings, which generate revenue, by providing coverage of what viewers’ demand.

The lunatic circus that this election cycle has been is simply the manifestation of what we collectively allowed, even invited. Not unlike the Romans demanding gladiatorial battles with all their gory losses and glorious victories, Americans have reveled in the “bad reality television show” of Election 2016 regardless of statements to the contrary.

If such were not true, we would have demanded of the candidates and the media that they genuinely speak to the important issues, but such has not been the case.

Measuring so-called media coverage is difficult to be sure, if not impossible, and it is likely as much black magic as science. But even in areas of “educated guessing” if the same methods are repeatedly applied, a valid analysis can be established. Andrew Tyndall is a long time media analyst who recently wrote:

This year’s absence of issues is an accurate portrayal of the turf on which the election is being played out. It has turned into a referendum on the candidates’ fitness for office, hinging on attributes such as honesty, trustworthiness, judgment, temperament, stamina, good health, comportment and boorishness. If the candidates are not talking about the issues, the news media would be misrepresenting the contest to do so.

No trade, no healthcare, no climate change, no drugs, no poverty, no guns, no infrastructure, no deficits. To the extent that these issues have been mentioned, it has been on the candidates’ terms, not on the networks’ initiative.

How little attention has been paid to issues in 2016? A mere fraction of what Tyndall has measured since 1988, and the sad part is cable networks and online sources are likely even worse. But again I say, the media will always serve up what the masses want, and in this election cycle we’ve not asked for issue coverage. We’ve asked for the Christians and the lions, and the media has been all too happy to oblige, and profit.

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The chart below shows the minutes of issue coverage by the three major networks on their evening news since 1988, according to Tyndall’s ongoing research. This is not a picture painted by an intelligent and demanding electorate. This is quite the opposite and shows what happens when voters abandon the pursuit of real information.

TV Minutes on Issues

Voters Want Progress, But That Takes Effort

A recent Gallup Poll made it clear that the majority want to see progress, and they embrace compromise between the parties.

A majority of Americans continue to believe that political leaders in Washington should compromise in order to get things done, while less than half as many say leaders should stick to their beliefs even if little gets done.

The challenge is for that majority of voters to take back the narrative from the extremists, who find compromise to be anathema. The first step in that process is to embrace the pursuit of true and honest information, then return the debate to issues. It won’t be easy, but it’s also not that difficult, and there is far too much at stake. We simply can no longer allow the demise of intellect and the death of issues, to push our political system closer to the brink of disaster.


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Tom Dougherty
About Tom Dougherty 23 Articles
Political data expert who detests apathy and respects accountability. President & CEO of Practical Politicking. Headed back to sea soon aboard DANGER ZONE, my Melges 24 racing sailboat.

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