Friday, October 13, 2006

Dissent In Politics

We're heading into the home stretch for the mid-term elections--heavy duty political season. It seems like everyone has opinions, and candidates, and parties they support, or despise, or see as the lesser of two evils, or want hung from the nearest gallows. Individual politician's crimes and offenses are made out to be giant party trends (sometimes accurately), and having the upper hand and jockeying for moral victory get oh so much more important as we approach election day--at least jockeying for the appearance of moral victory. For many candidates, it's all about landing blows on the opponent, and not about saying, "Here's why my ideas are better than the other guy's." Improving poll numbers are the political holy grail, and contribute to the momentum that will carry the party on to victory. Or not.

I wonder how much of that momentum is based on all the hype and accusations that come out just before the votes are cast. Are Americans really so fickle that the latest sex scandal, or shady land deal, will push the electorate over into one camp or another? Do most of us care enough to get educated about the issues and vote responsibly? Do we care enough when not inundated with the high drama of the peak of the election cycle to pay attention to what politicians really do--how they vote after all the promises that get them elected? When we discuss politics amongst ourselves, is it with an eye to finding the best solution, no matter who comes up with it, or are we so entrenched in our beliefs about other people's motivations that we won't even listen to their explanations and ideas if they happen to be of the wrong political persuasion?

I'm not sure about the answers to all these questions. I'd like to believe that the average American is better than the politicians think them, and not as vulnerable to the "October surprise" as all the final posturing in the last days of campaign season would indicate. Most of the people I know are pretty reasonable (most, not all), but why would the politicians and their minions bother with the last minute "gotcha" games if they weren't at least a little effective? Also, why does it seem that so many people aren't interested in even hearing the opposing point of view? Do they not think any good can come from getting another perspective? I don't know. I do know there's an awful lot of shouting each other down, and this year, as is common in recent years, there doesn't seem to be nearly as much discussion about ideas as there are proclamations about how horrible the other side is--and then offense when the other side takes the same approach and declares them horrible in return. I have a friend with political leaning bosses who think it's perfectly fine to let their employees know where they stand, but it's strictly verboten for anyone else to share an alternate perspective. How is that right? These days, the common interpretation of free speech so often seems to be, "feel free to agree with my speech." It's frustrating.

Peggy Noonan has a look at this squelching of dissent in a Wall Street Journal editorial. She is writing from a conservative perspective, and so her examples are all from the left. I think she has good reason for her perspective, but I do think she could have listed some examples from the right as well. I don't think this is an partisan issue. It's an issue of civil discourse. It's not about Democrat or Republican. It's about being civilized people. Have we entirely forgotten how to have a reasonable political discussion? I see a lot of evidence that the art is fading fast, but I hope that those of us who aren't so married to our ideas that all thought of disagreement makes us livid can still move to change that pattern.

Feel free to tell me your opinion on this one. Am I just getting a skewed image of this? Is there more civilised discussion out there than I'm seeing? (Outside of the blogosphere, that is. I see lots of good discussion happening here.)

Hat tip: Instapundit