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Debatable Relevance: How to Make Politics Understandable

Watching the first presidential debate, this thought went through my mind: What are these guys talking about?

I had virtually no idea, and the moderator, Jim Lehrer, apparently didn’t either.

That those of us who cover politics can barely follow the claims and counterclaims of the candidates should serve as a warning.

These debates, even these campaigns overall, are a far cry from educating the public about anything—what the options are, what the real differences are, what each candidate really wants to do and is even able to do, what is likely to be the outcome of all this rhetoric and parsing.

There are real differences between the worldviews of the two parties, and between what the backers of each candidate (if not the candidates themselves) want to happen in this country. Yet the current system is not an effective one for communicating, clearly and reliably, how this will all shake out—and affect ordinary Americans.

The media, by and large, are left to argue over who “performed better,” or who “won” that round, rather than to tell us what we need to know. And certainly it’s easy to get worked up about Romney’s masterful job of thoroughly mixing up what he stands for, and Obama’s inability to sound animated or express outrage at Romney’s sudden turn into a deeply compassionate person—in complete contradiction to his policy proposals.

What can we learn from this first presidential debate? That we urgently need better journalism. It’s our job to study not just the candidates, but the system itself, and try to explain, coherently, how things work. And what it will take to change how things work.

All of you pay for those debates and for the campaigns themselves—if not through campaign contributions than by buying the products that bracket the debates and enable the networks to run 90 minutes of commercial-free fare.

What will you pay for good journalism? Only a handful out of the thousands who regularly read what we at WhoWhatWhy produce bother to make even a small contribution to support its continuance and expansion. But, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

If it’s important to you that this country move beyond confusing rhetoric and spectacle to clarity and a truly informed electorate, you need to invest in institutions that can move us in that direction.

Please take a minute to support our work—and to help us do more of it.

Click here to donate. And thanks.

 

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  • Matt

    Thanks, Russ.

    I’m a fan of both your site, and you book.

    However, is there REALLY any difference between the 2 parties? Or the powers that back them?

    Isn’t it true that BOTH Obama and Romney are back by Goldman-Sachs? I don’t get how there’s any real difference between them.

    Thanks!

    • Russ Baker

      I agree they’re very similar on wars, foreign policy, and monetary policy. However, there are real differences on domestic issues, including certainly health care, regulating industry and finance, the environment, taxes, the role of government, and more. It’s important to look at these things objectively.

  • https://sites.google.com/site/themattprather Matt Prather

    Great commentary… and I guess I’d add that getting the public to believe in the “vote for President” spectacle / illusion is now and has long-time been a vital pillar of power for those who actually select our Presidents…

    …as long as the people truly believe in the President as a buck-stops-here policy setter that they can “choose” with their own educated minds and free wills, it goes a long way towards justifying the policies and practices which the President will go on to implement, often through Executive authority and “National Defense” authority. If the people stop believing in the system, and start believing that the presidents are just puppets and actors and Judases, it really does change the nature of the game of power.

    Unfortunately, it seems we are now getting to the point where the gap between the spectacle / illusion of “democracy”, supposed rule of law, and the actual way in which politics and rule of law is implemented, is so great that people of average and above-average intellect (and the will to independent thought) can’t really swallow it any more. Like you are saying, Mr. Baker.

    Watching the first presidential debate, this thought went through my mind: What are these guys talking about? I had virtually no idea, and the moderator, Jim Lehrer, apparently didn’t either.

    That those of us who cover politics can barely follow the claims and counterclaims of the candidates should serve as a warning.
    These debates, even these campaigns overall, are a far cry from educating the public about anything—what the options are, what the real differences are, what each candidate really wants to do and is even able to do, what is likely to be the outcome of all this rhetoric and parsing.

    Maybe the next thing we’ll be hearing is that democracy has failed, the economy is failing (because of whatever hobgoblins they tell us are causing that failure), and people don’t really want freedom, or honesty, or fairness from their political authorities, they really just want economic benefits… and so it’s time for something more… effective… something more along the lines of successful corporate institutions… something more, dare I say, authoritarian to get business done and bring us economic benefits. Democracy sucks, just give us a strongman already!

    I’ll close by repeating more of Russ Baker’s words:

    All of you pay for those debates and for the campaigns themselves—if not through campaign contributions than by buying the products that bracket the debates and enable the networks to run 90 minutes of commercial-free fare.

    What will you pay for good journalism? Only a handful out of the thousands who regularly read what we at WhoWhatWhy produce bother to make even a small contribution to support its continuance and expansion. But, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

    If it’s important to you that this country move beyond confusing rhetoric and spectacle to clarity and a truly informed electorate, you need to invest in institutions that can move us in that direction.

    Please take a minute to support our work—and to help us do more of it.