You might expect political discourse today would be more informed, sophisticated and well-reasoned than ever, at least in the United States. We're literate, learned, savvy and used to swimming in massive volumes of information.
Thanks to the internet, anyone can easily become an authority on anything from the local library budget to the competing congressional proposals on warrantless wiretapping. More than ever, citizens are able to know what they're talking about, to back up their assertions with facts (culled from original source material), and to state a logical, well-reasoned case for their conclusions.
So why is so much of our public discourse so detached from verifiable facts? And why is so much of it the rhetorical equivalent of a food fight? You can dunk a horse in the fountain of knowledge, but you can't make him think.
Serious commentators discuss the issue more rigorously. In "The Argument Culture," Deborah Tannen attributes our often-degraded national conversation to "a pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight."
That reliance on adversarial discourse has, she argues, become "exaggerated," partly by the news media's attempts to frame discourse in binary terms -- between two polarized extremes that, it is assumed, compose "balance."
But civic debate requires more than ideological salvos. It requires that we listen to those with whom we disagree, to examine their evidence, to consider their arguments. When a philosophical foe makes a valid point, we are obliged to admit this. Where she errs, we are called upon to explain how.
Through such careful, logical and thoughtful exchanges, the theory goes, the sounder arguments will generally prevail, and society will improve. But to an alarming degree, that is not the nature of our public discourse.
"The truth is that American democracy is now in danger -- not from any one set of ideas, but from unprecedented changes in the environment within which ideas either live and spread, or wither and die," writes former Vice President Al Gore in "The Assault on Reason," an excellent book.
The simple act of quoting Gore is bound to undermine the arguments presented here. Gore is vilified by vocal foes who deny the rigor (and sometimes even the existence) of thousands of peer-reviewed studies by leading climate scientists. To such people, any argument buttressed by a Gore quotation is self-refuting.
But it is important to admit that people across the spectrum can and do make valid points and have valid perspectives.
Correctly, Gore observes: "Faith in the power of reason -- the belief that free citizens can govern themselves wisely and fairly by resorting to logical debate on the basis of the best evidence available, instead of raw power -- was and is the central premise of American democracy. This premise is now under assault."
It is under assault by a host of forces, including the lure of entertainment, the passivity of the public and the disinclination of leaders (on both sides of the aisle) to engage in the thoughtful, careful discourse upon which our system of government depends.
There is no simple remedy for this democratic disease. Perhaps it is enough, as a start, to admit that it exists and to recognize that it is malignant.
Clint Talbott, for the editorial board
© 2008 The Daily Camera