Democracy Requires Listening

(Note: this week is “Summer Experience” at UMF, where incoming first year students have an intense week of discussion oriented work, with each class reading the same material — an ecclectic interdisciplinary set of works designed to stimulate thought and discussion.  This week I will blog about one of the writings each day.   Last year for day four I wrote about Howard Zinn’s piece “Violence: the Double Standard.“)   Today I write about Walter Lippmann’s “The Indispensable Opposition.”

On Tuesday night investigative reporters Lance Tapley and Luann Yetter spoke to the summer experience students  about the importance of journalism in the functioning of a democracy.   They noted how the media has become more corporate and sensationalized, while most blogs and commentary sites tend to be read by people wanting to simply reinforce their own opinion rather than to be challenged by different perspectives.    Investigative reporting has become rare.   Seymour Hirsch is still around — and effective — but most papers and TV stations have fallen into the ‘he said she said’ trap, believing that instead of truth, there is only opinion.  Each opinion needs moreover to be “balanced” by another opinion, creating an artificial bifurcation of political opinion.

Lippmann’s piece was written back in 1939, literally right before the breakout of WWII.   He could draw stark comparisons between a democratic polity and totalitarian systems.  German fascism and Soviet Communism appeared to be growing, powerful movements, while the remaining democratic states were mired in a lingering depression.  Many saw fascism and communism as the waves of the future, as democracies seemed divided and ineffective.  Lippmann recognized that there was something about a democracy that totalitarian states could never have: a vibrant opposition.

Lippmann begins by disputing a basic claim made by many of those who respect free speech:  that the goal is to tolerate speech we disagree with.  Toleration of the right of others to dissent is not enough.    It’s not enough just to allow dissent, one has to truly listen and take other perspectives seriously.

Listening is more than hearing.   Lippmann notes that in a totalitarian state there is little that will stop a government if the leader has chosen the wrong course of action, and in fact the bureaucracy will be tempted to tell their leaders what they want to hear.    Leaders will also likely lose touch with the people, believing their own propaganda.   Lippmann saw in 1939 that the rising fascist and Communist regimes were built on sand, while despite struggling, democracy had a sturdier foundation.   Fascism and Communism fell to their own internal contradictions and weaknesses; democracy has thrived.  Lippmann was right.

One could argue that most of the mistakes made by policy makers in recent years have been due to the deterioration of American political discourse and the dearth of real listening that is taking place.    In Congress, the level of animosity and partisanship has been increasing over the last twenty years.   If this is happening in Congress, it’s a reflection of what’s going on in public political discourse.

As newspapers disappear, people turn to sensationalistic forms of media — talk radio, blogs, and the like.  Television news, running 24 hours a day, has learned that you can’t survive without sensationalism.  Fox made the choice to be biased towards the right, while MSNBC seems to have chosen to occupy the left of center.   CNN, in the middle and trying to maintain some semblance of balance, sees its ratings drop dramatically.  Yet even it has fallen victim to the idea that the news is about “he said she said,” with a need to balance every opinion with another opinion.

The problem with all of this is that it decreases the amount of listening that takes place.   Rather than trying to understand the other perspective, consider it, and reflect on whether or not the opposition has a point, the opposition becomes something to defeat.   On the right, “liberal” becomes a bad word, and people on the left are caricatured.  This is more obvious from the right thanks to talk radio, but the same happens on the left, with conservatives being dismissed as bigoted war mongers and the like.   And, with Congress  political games rather than coming together to try to solve problems, the political process makes this a self-fulfilling prophecy — it does become sport, one side vs. the other.

So problems don’t get solved.   This has now continued for decades, and we’ve seen the country unwilling to deal with major problems facing our economy, or to question the nature of our foreign policy.    Short term political games trump the idea that together we need to deal with serious issues facing our polity.   Yet perhaps all is not lost.

An article the other day at Politico noted that Republicans were giving up their opposition to Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court because she “didn’t become the kind of lightning rod” they expected.  They were going to oppose her if it helped them rile up opposition to Obama, but when that didn’t pan out, they decided they may as well not make a fight out of it.   None of this had anything to do with her qualifications or whether or not she deserved to be on the Court, it was all political show.

Why did they back down?   The public decided not to play the political game.  Despite some bloggers and pundits ratcheting up the anti-Sotomayor rhetoric, it didn’t catch on.   Consider: In last year’s election a Democratic outsider who promised to change the tone in Washington defeated the partisan insider to win the primaries (and ultimately the Presidency).   The Republican nominee was the man who many on the right decried as too willing to compromise and make nice with the Democrats.   The public, it seems, wants their politicians to listen, and despite the noise from the partisans of each side (and their impact on their respective parties), most of the so-called “silent majority” follow no set ideology or party, and would prefer to have the politicians stop playing games and start working together to solve problems.

And that gives me hope.  In a democracy, you don’t leave it up to the elites, after all — they’ll always be prone to political power games.  Democracy only works if the public demands listening, and listens itself.   President Obama was elected on that premise, and while it’s still too early to see if he can really change the tone, it’s needed now more than ever.

However, we also need the media to play a critical constructive role.    With newspapers disappearing and the internet taking over, there is hope that the capacity of people to explore diverse perspectives will trump the mode of simply looking for opinions one already agrees with.   Perhaps good investigative journalism, willing to try for integrity and to pursue the truth rather than just giving different “sides” of an argument, will give citizens better information moving forward.   But ultimately it is up to us; we need to as individuals want to listen and take seriously points of view other than our own, and be willing to change our mind if the evidence and argument merits.  We need to demand that from our politicians; we need to respect that (and reward it) from our media.   The future of our democracy is at stake.

Democracy requires listening, listening is facilitated by a vibrant and engaged media that is concerned with finding out the truth, and not simply taking sides or displaying competing talking heads.   The challenge is here for the generation now coming of age to reshape the media, and the political discourse, to something better than it has been.

  1. #1 by Luann Yetter on June 25, 2009 - 14:16

    Your thoughts are a great addition to our talk on Tuesday night. You’re right, listening is very important, and I wonder if educators (myself included) stress this enough.

  2. #2 by Josh on June 25, 2009 - 16:15

    It seems that all media is moving toward sensationalism. Take films for instance. They sure have changed since Orson Welles time.

    I used to watch 24 hour news, but then stopped because of the reasons you noted. Now I just watch CSPAN, but the Congress makes me want to pull my hair out sometimes.

    I tend to blame the politicians the most. When I watch the House or Senate, I find that the Republicans whine too much. But then the Democrats don’t work in a very bipartisan way either. I don’t know who is more to blame, but I hope both sides can get their act together.

    • #3 by Josh on June 25, 2009 - 18:28

      Whoops, noticed some grammar issues that need to be corrected:

      “Orson Welles’ time” not “Orson Welles time”


      “their acts together” not “their act together”


  3. #4 by Mike Lovell on June 25, 2009 - 17:13

    Great article Scott. As much as I love a good argument with a smarter guy, I really can’t add anything here to stir up some debate. Vote ME in 2016, is about as close as I can get!

  4. #5 by Mike Lovell on June 25, 2009 - 18:41

    From the Office of Correct Word Usage and Grammar Police:

    We would like to welcome you to our organization. It seems that your previous errors were not caught by our office, as we have been concentrating on Scott’s errors in other postings. Your self-policing ways have been noticed. You may now congratulate yourself by patting your own back!

    • #6 by Josh on June 25, 2009 - 19:48

      I’m glad to know that “the police” approve of me. Please let me know what else I can do to help keep my good standing!


  5. #7 by Jeff Lees on June 25, 2009 - 19:14

    I just hope Obama can bring real change to the political landscape and political culture in Washington.

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