Friday, October 4, 2013

Crossing the Line in American Politics

I'm going to take a wild guess that most of us in the US are feeling frustrated with the freakishly bi-polar state of American politics right about now. I'd like to offer three suggestions to get American back on track. They all involve crossing the line.

First, a quick look at how, in my opinion, we got to where we are today.


Long, long ago, back in 1949 when girls wore dresses and lipstick and guys wore fedoras, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) introduced the Fairness Doctrine, requiring broadcasters on the radio and television to present both sides of controversial issues. (Kind of a shocking thought, these days, isn't it?) At the time, there were a limited number of stations possible, and this was a necessary step to make certain one political party did not monopolize the air waves. (For any of you younger people out there who might be wondering- the Internet did not exist. Cable TV did not even exist.) These were the days when, after tucking Johnny and Suzy into bed, Mom and Dad sat on the couch and watched the 10 o'clock news-- hearing BOTH sides of the story.

Then cable television came along and suddenly there were plenty of television stations to go around. Not only could the Republicans and Democrats each have dozens of their own stations if they wanted, so could Communists and Evangelical preachers, infomercial salesmen and music producers (MTV).  Realizing the need to protect each side's ability to have a venue to be heard was no longer so critical, the FCC eliminated the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Enter CNN (Fair and Balanced?), FOX News and many others.

Result? Mom and Dad sit dow to watch the 10 o'clock news with a plethora of options, leading to the question- "Who do we agree with?" and the tendency to watch stations most in line with their own opinions.  After a while, Mom and Dad get so indoctrinated in the only side they ever hear that they can't even remember what The Other Side looks like. When they hear an opinion from across the aisle, it sounds foreign and absurd.
Foreign and Absurd. Notice the bystander's expressions.
They are undoubtedly wondering how this man intends to run a government. 

Enter the Internet, with YouTube and FaceBook. Mom and Dad's kids, Johnny and Suzy, have grown up in a house that only hears and talks about one side of every story. As far as Johnny and Suzy are concerned, The Other Side is evil and wants to destroy freedom in America--much like the 1950's and 60's view of Communism. When Johnny and Suzy get FaceBook pages, they exercise their First Amendment rights to voice their opinions, and let everyone know how right their side is, and how evil The Other Side is. This sparks angry comments, Likes, mean words, sympathetic responses and an increase in the Great Divide of American politics.



Johnny and Suzy don't get their news reports from journalists who have studied the issues and are required to report both sides of the story. They don't even get it from journalists who are now allowed to go all out promoting their own agenda. They get their version of current events from teens on FaceBook who repost witty slams on the The Other Side as if life were a sit com and there was a laugh track for every mean thing anyone says, often without understanding the issues involved or history behind them.

And we wonder why there is a problem?

We are sliding from being a republic to being a schismocracy. It's not that one side, right wing or left wing, is controlling our government. The schism is controlling the country. If we want to get things under control, we have to close the schism. I have three proposals to close the gap.

1)  This is something you can do right now. Grab your smart phone and get apps for multiple news stations, including at least one you do not agree with.  If you are not already, start getting your news from real news sources (aka not FaceBook). Stations to consider? There are tons that lean left, including MSNBC, CNN, The New York Times and to be honest, most others. FOX leans right. If you are sitting on the left side of this schism, please subscribe to FOX and make a point of reading their opinions at least once a week. If you are sitting on the right side of the Great Divide, please subscribe to something other than FOX and read articles on politics from the other pov at least once a week. In this way, we can start tossing lines from one side of the schism to the other, reaching out and, be it ever so slowly, pulling this schism back together.

As Covey says, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." We can't possibly work together if we can't see where The Other Side is coming from. If reading FOX reports makes you see red and curse, you may need to take it in small doses. But for America's sake, keep reading! If NBC articles make you want to vomit, set them down for a bit, take a deep breath, and come back ready to listen and understand.

I'm not saying we need to adopt The Other Side's views. I'm saying we need to see where they are coming from. Throw that line out there, reach out, and start pulling. This schism is not just in Congress and on the Hill. This is all of us. If you want to see responsible negotiations in DC with a willingness to compromise and work across the aisle, then keep in mind, those people represent you.

Did you download a news app or two?
Good job.

2)  Redistricting. This isn't something you can do from your couch this afternoon. But it is something you can at the very least understand, and possibly get involved to change. Voting districts in the US are areas with boundaries, where everyone in one district votes for one or two (in the case of the Senate) representatives. After a census is taken, boundaries get redrawn to take into account population shifts. The problem is that population shifts are not the only thing taken into account. The party currently in control of redrawing the boundaries takes the opportunity to strategically manipulate the lines so their people get the most votes. If you're a Republican redrawing lines, you break up areas that traditionally vote Democratic and keep the Republican areas together, so each district ends up with less Democratic neighborhoods and more Republican neighborhoods. If you are a Democrat redrawing lines, you do the opposite. This is called Gerrymandering.

Result? Widening of the schism. Representatives are elected to represent groups of people who, like those watching MSNBC or FOX, have a very one-sided pov, with so few people from The Other Side that representatives don't need to worry about their opinion in order to be reelected. And when they ask their constituents opinion, to no one's surprise they get a very skewed response.

I think voting districts should be redrawn to be as balanced as possible. In fact, I would not object to a law to this effect. This would get representatives who have to listen to both sides and could eliminate the type of bickering going on right now. Combine this with a populace that is making a concerted effort to listen to news reports form The Other Side, and the schism grows more narrow.

3) Eliminate the Electoral College. In America, when you "Vote for the president," you are not actually voting for the president.  Here's a quick primer. A very, very long time ago in the colonial days, back when girls wore petticoats and mob caps and men wore powdered wigs, it was difficult to get any news information at all.

Not only did the Internet and cable not exist. Radio and television did not exist. Newspapers were local and very expensive. The average George and Mary did not have time or means to read about and understand politics. They were busy tending the farm, milking the cow and sewing little Martha's pantaloons.  The founders wanted a way for George and Mary to be involved in political decisions without unintentionally messing things up by casting uninformed votes. Enter the Electoral College. In this system, each community elects someone to vote for them. This was intended to be someone people knew and trusted to study the political events, travel to listen to debates, and take the votes of the people back home and cast them on their behalf for the president of the United States. Most states give all their votes to one candidate. Period. (Maine and Nebraska are exceptions.)

But (in case you weren't sure), things have changed. Newspaper prices dropped dramatically. Radio, television, cable, Internet, smart phones- and who knows what is coming in the future- have all made it possible for the Georges and Marys of today to be informed. Not that we all take that opportunity. (You are, though, right? You downloaded some news apps with push notifications? Your going to glance at them when they pop up and occasionally read the articles, even from The Other Side, right? Good job.)  Today, the Electoral College serves to widen the schism.

Consider Utah. (Oh man, where do I start?)  If George decides to vote for Obama in Utah, does his vote have any impact on the election? Nope. None. Utah is going to the Republican candidate no matter what. Did Obama have any reason to court voters in Utah? To listen to them? To even take their existence into consideration? (Well, ok. Maybe their existence. But that's about it.)  Or how about a Republican living in Vermont. I assume there is at least one up there. Their vote for Romney made absolutely no difference in the outcome of the 2012 elections. None.

If we went to a popular election, presidential candidates would need to start listening to voters everywhere, not only in swing states. The schism, where Obama can ignore people in Utah and Romney can ignore people in Vermont, would lessen. Every vote would count, encouraging the president to listen to every person. Yes, I recognize that this is a complicated subject and the results of eliminating the Electoral College would be many. I am of the opinion it would improve the state of American politics in part through encouraging presidents to listen to everyone.



So there you have it. Listen to both sides. Redistrict to as balanced as possible. Eliminate the Electoral College. My three-part plan to end the schismocracy in America, close the gap, and get back to being a country we can all be proud of.

   

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