Friday, October 19, 2012

An Uninformed and Unengaged Electorate: the Importance of The Newsroom

The long-term sustainability of a democracy revolves around a well-informed and engaged electorate. Today, however, we seem to have neither. Voter turnout is appallingly low compared to other developed countries. Turnout in elections has decreased steadily for the past three decades, directly correlating with the skyrocketing costs of campaigning and the businesses’ virtual monopoly in campaign finance. Even though the 2008 election attracted a large number of youth voters, continued pessimism in the political process associated with polarization, gridlock, the domination of special interests in government (particularly in the aftermath of Citizens United), rapid increase of negative advertising, and disenfranchisement under the Electoral College will likely keep turnout low for the foreseeable future. Turnout for congressional midterms, primaries, state elections, and especially municipal posts is even worse.

At the same time, the most energized segments of both parties also happen to be the most dogmatic and stubborn to compromise. These are the same people who turn out in primaries and produce the “choice” between an incompetent candidate and a fundamentalist nut job time and time again. Elections these days seem to be more about which candidate can turn out more of their party base; as long as this is the case, there is little incentive for politicians to return more aggressively towards the center following primaries.

Few people take the time and effort to thoroughly research the soundness of policy platform, let alone find out general campaign stances at all: policy voting remains a woefully rare phenomenon. For a substantial sum, sweeping generalizations and 30-second campaign ads featuring shallow sound bites, misleading statements, and even outright lies form the extent of a voter’s knowledge, which is shamefully insufficient to cast a truly informed vote. While millions still watch the presidential debates, they will remain a circus until they feature active, live factchecking by the moderators.

Many voters make extremely unreasonable decisions. Some voters are so driven by social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, or gun control that they will vote for a candidate on their stances in these subjects alone. While undoubtedly important, the economy, budget, energy, health care, entitlements, and foreign policy are all more important and tangibly affect far more people. Voting along party lines is simply lazy and completely ignores both the ideological divergence among individual candidates and the drift of party platforms over time. Darron Shaw, a government professor from UT, reckons that 80 percent of so-called “independents” leaning Democrat or Republican (about 88 percent of the 33-40 percent who call themselves independents) remain on the party line. Retrospective voting (are you better off than you are four years ago?) is just as inaccurate because it doesn’t account for whether or not the other party is better or more responsible for a particular situation. Many seem to believe that the president is the arbiter rather than a bystander in economic policy and can dramatically lower gas prices with a single wave of the hand. Policy voting is still a woefully rare phenomenon.

An Uninformed Electorate: Lack of Education, Information, and Engagement

The stagnation of U.S. public education has certainly created difficulties in robust political participation. A significant number of students graduate high school without a firm knowledge of economics or government. How would these people discern sound fiscal and economic policies from trickle-down voodoo and Hogwarts magic? What would motivate students to vote if they don’t have a good idea on government’s roles and structures?

This problem is inevitably worse among the 7.4 percent of students who dropped out of school in 2010 without even obtaining a GED. Mediocre education is exacerbated by wide achievement gaps among different ethnicities. Many minorities, including Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, and the poor are even more adversely affected by an inadequate public education system. The electoral problems are catastrophic for the uneducated. Those with poorer educations are likelier to face economic hardship and less likely to vote: why should they take the time and effort to make an informed decision when they have to work tirelessly just to keep food on the table? As a result, ethnic minorities and lower classes are even less able to articulate their minority interests and fight for improved conditions such as robust education reform.

At the same time, increased work hours due to globalization and technological improvements such as the Internet have shifted the precious time of citizens away from political engagement.
Most Americans have longer workweeks than they did 3 decades ago. Remaining free time is occupied by an endless stream of entertainment, including addicting TV series, movies, and video games. Both globalization and the Internet have dramatically decreased our attention span: we find it bothersome or inconvenient to bother trying understanding complex issues that affect us and our nation. It is telling that ratings for televised presidential debates have fallen considerably over the past 3 decades. Not too long ago, we can listen to politicians for a long time; now, we can only withstand minutes. As the average swing voter or moderate becomes occupied by other forms of entertainment, only a polarized core remains. 

In their book Winner-Take-All Politics, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson note that contrary to popular opinion, America’s coveted swing voters are often the least engaged and informed, typically making decisions on the flimsiest grounds. Do you want these people to dictate the election from the state of Ohio?

Without accurate information, many Americans have a fragmented understanding of the true provisions behind proposed legislation and may oppose policies that are actually in their interest. While a thin majority opposes the Affordable Care Act, half of those who oppose it believe that it doesn’t go far enough. Furthermore, many believe that the ACA hurts small businesses when it actually exempts firms with fewer than 50 workers; in fact, there is far more damage towards the employees of these firms because the employer does not cover a portion of their premiums. Nonetheless, the Republicans spew out these soundbites against a policy they once supported in the mid-1990s, and a surprising large number of Americans buy their lies. In short, the modern Republican Party thrives upon this utter ignorance, offering radical policies whose practicality doesn’t stand up to even modest scrutiny.

The Underperforming Media: The Amazing Race for Ratings and the Rise of Echo Chambers

My favorite JibJab video is “What We Call the News.” It laments on the decline of basic journalistic integrity since the days of the CBS-NBC-ABC oligarchy and the rise of “mindless ballyhoo” and pointless sensationalism.

Indeed, cable news (CNN, MSNBC, FOX), driven by a lust for ratings and profits, do a pathetic job at adequately reporting and explaining the implications of various policies. The media often treats elections like a horse race instead of offering a serious conversation of how policymaking would be affected. Respectable news publications such as The Economist have far fewer readers than they should.

The political slant of all three major cable news networks undermines compromise and cohesion, polarizes the most energized segments of both parties, and discourages civility. Fox News continually spouts out extremist right wing propaganda and vitriol, typically utilizing gross exaggerations to demonize anyone not matching their political ideology. Nonetheless, their influence is so strong that spineless, moderate Republicans are forced to take very conservative stances. During the cap and trade debate, Senator Lindsey Graham, no moderate, worked with his Democratic counterparts to work out a compromise on the bill, but insisted that these discussions be secret. When Fox News found out, Fox launched a concerted campaign against Graham until he backed down in disgrace. MSNBC is similar, albeit less vicious. Even CNN, which is hailed relatively objective, is laden with partisan punditry rather than experts who can provide a detailed and supported analysis. If you’ve watched an average episode of The Daily Show, it isn’t hard to see why CNN is so hated: they also run pointless stories and “cutting-edge technological models” that don’t offer additional substance. These cable networks are bent on proving that their side is unequivocally right and the other side is an evil fascist or socialist.

The rise of the Internet, however beneficial, has facilitated the rapid proliferation of “news.” Not only is news with extremist viewpoints far more accessible, any nut job who has a blog (such as this one) is able to spew anything without any accountability and can more easily connect with readers with similar views. This prolific rise has enabled selective exposure, which allows people to cherry-pick the slants that reinforce their own views.

Just as important is the dependence corruption associated with the sponsors of news publications, especially sources without the critical mass or revenues to function on its own. In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky explains that advertisers have their own overt or subtle expectations of reciprocity from the media; they can use the struggling publications’ desperation for revenues as leverage to demand a viewpoint more favorable to their own needs. The result is a consensual, corrupt relationship between these publications and their advertisers: the news company gets the critical dollop of money to stay afloat, and the sponsors are granted a mouthpiece for their own agendas.

Major cable networks are not immune: while Fox is able to achieve considerable ratings (extremism literally pays off), calls for the network to moderate its stance are unlikely to be taken lightly by its principal benefactors: far-right figures who have gained enormous wealth under the winner-take-all system, the same sponsors of the GOP. While the effect is minor, even established one-man shows such as Rush Limbaugh must watch to some extent what is said: in February, when Limbaugh railed on about Sandra Fluke and contraception, he lost quite a few sponsors and subsequently apologized.

A Modest Proposal for Comprehensive Reform

When large swathes of Americans refuse to perform the most fundamental civic duty in a democracy, democracy exists in name only. Voting apathy is a deep problem  Thankfully, there are several reforms that can at least alleviate this problem:

  • Bills should be limited to 30 pages. This is the grain of truth in Herman Cain’s campaign for “small bills.” When there is a sensible limit on the length of the bill, it becomes a lot easier to detect patronage such as earmarks and loopholes. While it is true that red tape and exemptions require additional pages, this is best left to the regulatory authorities rather than Congress.

In addition, congressional staff should create a 2-3 page bill summary that would illustrate the main provisions of the bill and highlight any loopholes and earmarks that are within the legislation. While earmarks foster dependence corruption by encouraging the district’s recipients to donate in reciprocation and expectation of future earmarks, they may sometimes be necessary to gain a critical vote; the key is transparency.

Congressmen should be required by law (under threat of being censored) to read all major bills word for word and all summaries for more minor bills and social issues. Right now, according to Lawrence Lessig in Republic, Lost, they are often told by their staff how to vote.

  • Public Education Must Stress Knowledge of Economics and Government. (For a more detailed overview of public education, see this post).

  • Special interests must be curbed through publicly funded elections to help restore trust in the government. (See post).

  • There should be some form of publicly-funded media. If the cable networks are sufficiently funded, the effect of manufactured consent would be curbed. Such funding should remain strictly autonomous from who controls government and should require a supermajority or higher to overturn.

Another possibility is the creation of a nonpartisan or logic-heavy channel that explains complex policy issues in a relatable way; it would be like the TV or layman version of the Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office. Maintaining nonpartisanship would be difficult, but backing up claims with evidence would be a great start from the sorry state of journalism today.

  • Voting could be compulsory. This compulsory voting program could be designed like the individual mandate: anyone who doesn’t vote will be taxed (as Chief Justice Roberts would put it) for not engaging in a basic civic duty. Because this would more significantly affect those in poverty, who are less likely to vote in the first place, it could help level out the playing field in the level of voter turnout by race or class.

  • The weight of the vote should be determined by competence in an aptitude test. If the Republican Party is so insistent on voting fraud, it is just as fraudulent to vote without a firm knowledge in economics or basic logic. This examination could be taken every year (and, to test retention, retaken just before every presidential election), and would involve basic economics and logic/logical fallacies. Depending on how bad the score is, voters would have the weight of their vote halved or quartered. To reduce controversy, this particular provision can be gradually incorporated and pursued alongside a major overhaul of public education so that more people have the opportunity to demonstrate basic competence in these fields. Derailing political equality is controversial, but it doesn’t make sense for PHDs in liberal arts and especially economics to have the same weight as a rabid high school dropout.

  • The Electoral College should be abolished. Right now, 60-80 percent of the nation living in uncompetitive states is systematically disenfranchised from the presidential elections: the minority party has no voice, while the majority party cannot influence the outcome of other states. It is difficult to precisely quantify the reduction in voter turnout in uncompetitive states, but it is likely to be significant.

Even competitive swing states have a miserable time. Every 4 years, states like Ohio and Florida are bombarded the most with political ads and the media; after the election, it becomes a ghost town. The electoral college is unfair for all Americans and for the losing candidate that ekes out a substantial win on the popular vote but barely lost a swing state.

Keeping the Advantages of Democracy Alive

An informed and well-engaged electorate is critical to the long-term well being of our nation and the continuation of sensible policies rather than populist ones. Already, the U.S. is turning Japanese. Parag Khanna writes in The Second World:

“China is so confident in America's lack of appeal that U.S. presidential elections are televised live, perhaps for entertainment.”

I dream of the day when America's political system is actually admired. Right now, it is unequivocally the laughing stock around the world.

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