Saturday, May 21, 2016

Discouraged by Political Ignorance

I meet with several groups for coffee each week. Given the election year, conversation often turns to politics, and I have been surprised and discouraged at the depth and breadth of ignorance that gets displayed.  It isn’t just about the blatant lies being slung about that are yet believed because they touched a hot button or two.  It’s not even about the willingness to take unsupported assertions as truth without bothering to verify them.  It is about the dreadful lack of knowledge about how elections work, the function and organization of our various levels of government, and what the basic functions of government are.

Our area of Eastern Washington (the dry side of the mountains) prides itself on being conservative with a strong libertarian bent, which, in the not so distant past, meant something like cautious pragmatism that was hesitant to employ government action unless it could be demonstrated that it would be good for the community, would work, and could be paid for.  Make the case, and the conservative community would be all for it.  I think you could call that center-right.  The minority liberals were more center-left; willing to engage government for the welfare of the community, but still cautious about how to make it work, and whether the cost would be worth it.  

That thoughtful approach has been replaced gradually over the last few decades.  Center-right has given way to far right-wing.  Conservative is now just a label, and anything stamped with it is acceptable without further examination.  Is it good for the community has been replaced with suspicion about the community itself.  Will it work has been replaced with ridicule.  Can it be paid for has been replaced by a knee jerk faith that lower taxes are always better, and no increase should ever be tolerated.  All of that is colored by nostalgia for a time that never existed.   It’s a curious nostalgia because it is not warm and fuzzy; it’s expressed with angry, inflexible stubbornness.    

The liberal minority is growing thanks in part to in migration, but it’s bifurcated.  One part remains center-left, pragmatic, and forward looking.  The other part is far-left with almost the reverse of right-wing nostalgia.  If right-wing nostalgia looks back to a time that never existed, the far-left looks forward to a time that never will exist.  It’s a fantasy of sorts, but expressed with angry, inflexible stubbornness.  Idealistic proposals are seldom evaluated on their merits, their ability to work, or how they might be paid for.  That said, I’m more hopeful about the liberal side of things because I sense that its growth is almost entirely in the pragmatic center-left that maintains a cautious optimism about the near term future, and is adamant about making evidence based decisions.

Having set the stage, what troubles me most is the wide spread level of ignorance about how government works.  Call it basic civics if you will.  To be sure, I’ve heard plenty of complaints about the poor quality of high school civics now being taught.  But the groups I meet with are adults who were taught in the good old days when civics was an important subject.  Yet their knowledge about government at every level is abysmal.  They have a sketchy, egregiously biased memories of American history.  They know little about the organization and purpose of government at every level.  They know very little about basic economics, that most political of disciplines.  They don’t even know how the election process works, especially for federal offices.  This is basic stuff.  Every immigrant taking the citizenship test has to know it, and most of my adult, born in America, patriotic weekly coffee mates don’t.  It’s discouraging. 




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