America’s Political Debate Makes People Dumber

We need to build new models for political engagement and learning if we want to create a vision of the common good—and keep our collective sanity.

When was the last time you had an enjoyable and constructive conversation about American politics and society in the past 5 years, in-person or online? It’s painful. The buzzwords, the group think, the mangling of facts, the bad faith, the self-righteous posing, the sizing up of people to tear them down.

Politics used to be a field that was mildly interesting and engaging for experts and non-experts alike. You could bring up with a stranger or colleague some interesting tidbit gleaned from the daily paper or another periodical—maybe the new jobs figures, a public health stat, or some far away famine or military conflict—and learn something new about how others think and process information. Maybe you’d disagree, even vehemently. But perhaps by the end of that conversation, you’d also have a new angle on a subject and a desire to learn more about the facts and history behind an issue.  

Now the thought of engaging with others—on any political topic, in any format—makes any sane person want to run for the hills. Too many people just regurgitate crap they read on Twitter or see on cable. They figure out the party line, the correct ideological position to take, or the right person to demonize and repeat it without any doubts. Few people ever challenge their own thinking in any fundamental manner. And you almost never learn anything new from high profile political debates featuring candidates, activists, media personalities, or parties. In fact, you’re likely to come away less informed from these public performance pieces than if you had just watched your morning bagel toast for a few minutes. You’re better off reading a book or catching a game or listening to music or praying or whatever it is that provides some true meaning and insight to you—delivered and experienced in a relatively calm manner.

This past week of idiotic and self-righteous statements from politicians and leaders about the Chauvin verdict exemplifies the sorry state of public debate in America. People couldn’t keep their mouths shut on the left or right for an even an hour and used the death of Floyd and conviction of Chauvin as another proof point in their ideological crusade. A saner politics perhaps would have let the verdict sit for a while and encouraged people to think about George Floyd as a person and to rationally contemplate and discuss how we as a country might fix the situation that led to his killing. It would have prodded people to figure out how to reduce all kinds of violence in our communities—from bad cops and bad actors alike. The same cacophony of ideological nonsense happened after the Atlanta spa shootings and the Boulder attacks, as it does after every mass shooting in America. False facts and erroneous explanations of events fly around to inflame various combatants in America’s political wars.

Unfortunately, as sane people retreat from political debate—for perfectly valid reasons—the zealots and the money people and the ideologues rush in to fill the void and profit from the divisions of modern America. This in turn leads to further mistrust and misunderstanding between groups, and generalized apathy about the utility of political action. Forces of corruption and incompetence spread as people come to expect this behavior as the norm—and ignore it on their own team’s side—rather than viewing it as something that needs to be confronted. Basic national challenges go unaddressed and unexamined as polarizing culture war issues dominate national discourse.

Is there any way for citizens to restore effective and non-maddening political debate? It won’t be easy to reverse these trends given the ideological and partisan takeover of most institutions. But here are a few ideas:

1.     Practice self-restraint and choose not to engage in destructive politics and discourse. If a big political event occurs, or national or international challenge arises, people should take a breath and resist piping off online or on the air or at the bar about whatever half-baked opinion comes to mind. Take the time to learn all the facts of the situation and withhold judgement until the full picture emerges. And definitely hold back from laying into someone else who might have a different take or point-of-view on the matter. You won’t change their mind in that moment, and it will likely just encourage more destructive back-and-forth with no resolution.

2.     Don’t make politics the center of your life. As Peter Juul notes in yesterday’s post, politics has become a religion to too many people. Except it’s not religion. It’s democracy. There are no revealed truths, origin stories, scriptures, or miracles in politics. The political sphere is a place for people of different backgrounds and views to engage in dialogue, and sometimes contentious fights, about the proper course for the country. By definition, ideas and policies discussed in the political world ebb and flow and are not moored to unchanging truths or clerical dictates. Americans should find these deeper meanings in other aspects of life, and help return politics to its rightful position as a place to discuss and argue about viable solutions to common problems.  

3.     Support more ideologically diverse writing and analysis. The blogosphere was one of the best mini-trends of the early 00’s. Generalists, policy nerds, regular citizens, and niche local experts put out interesting facts or analysis along with non-traditional opinions—maybe with a few typos and run-on sentences but usually interesting and democratic in spirit. Substack and other platforms now make it much easier to do this old-school blogging again, and people should be encouraged—and paid when possible—to start writing and doing interesting national and local analysis. You will probably pick up more useful ideas from these forums than you will from the agit-prop masquerading as journalism at The New York Times or The Washington Post these days. Political analysis and journalism needs true diversity of thought, as well as diversity of people and work backgrounds, to thrive as a means for understanding complex issues and proposing solutions to key social and economic problems.

By changing the manner and tenor of how we engage in politics—and with other people interpersonally—liberal patriots could help move our public debates toward more constructive dialogue on pressing national problems and practical ways to solve them. Otherwise, American politics will further decline into irrelevance to those Americans who don’t sit within a particular ideological camp, and leave the field solely to those people prone to the worst excesses and abuses of political thought.