Somewhere Below the Bombast, Real Issues Await Us

I don't know about you, but I will be mighty glad come November 5 when the 2014 election season is over, and we can all calm down and get on with our lives again. If America was still a healthy democracy, we would all now be engaged in careful and respectful political debate. We'd be filled with pride to live in a nation where so much actual power resides in the hands of the people. We'd be agreeing on the facts, and debating the merits of the candidates and the issues. It is not civic pride that I feel, however, but confusion and disgust. If you have been reading the expanded letters to the editor page of this newspaper, or watching the television ads, you have been provided a short course in all the logical fallacies and deliberate political distortions available to human ingenuity.

Let the yard signs come down. Of this much I am sure: when archaeologists dig up Bismarck 10,000 years from now, they are going to wonder just who this "Sitte" was. And Oban and Potter and Martinson and Kaiser.

If we were wise, we'd ban all political ads on television. There are really only two types: the Reaganesque "It's Morning in America Again" ads with children playing in parks and farmers leaning proudly against combines; or "Willie Horton" ads designed to damage one's opponent by proving that he is a corrupt hack who is soft on crime (or race). Both types engage in subliminal messaging. In other words, they are not really about public policy or even political character, but rather about our primal hopes and primal fears. When was the last time you saw a political ad on television and took it at face value as a reliable, fair, and representative short portrait of a candidate or an issue? What is the useful civic takeaway of an ad in which a rancher pets his hunting dog and says he's a sixth generation Montanan? Impressive though that is, how will that make him a better U.S. Senator? It doesn't tell us how he will vote on immigration reform. It doesn't even tell us how he will vote on the farm bill.

If we took the millions of dollars that have been spent in North Dakota this year for the ballot measures alone, and spent it instead on civics classes in our public schools, we'd be infinitely better off. Among other things, that money could be used to train young people to see through the lies, distortions, ad hominem attacks, demonization of the opposing point of view, false claims, red herrings, and straw man "arguments" that now pass for political discourse.

First I see an attractive young mother from a small town who says that local pharmacies are essential to the sanctity of rural life. Half an hour later I see an attractive young mother from a small town who says that she'd be able to afford antibiotics for her children's ear infections if only we'd permit fair competition to drive down the prices. Later still I see an attractive young mother from a small town declare that once the big box stores get control of our pharmaceutical supply, they'll jack up the prices, just you wait. By the time the evening is over all I want to do is move to a small town--because the camerawork is always done on a perfect July evening, just before sunset; people are greeting each cheerfully other on main street; everyone has a world-class dog; and, as Garrison Keillor says, all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children, even those with ear infections, are above average. Give me some political ads shot in ground blizzards.

I'm sure you have seen those electronic dog fences that mark the perimeter of someone's property. When the dog gets close to the perimeter it is gently warned by a bell or a sweet little vibration in its electronic collar, but if it goes over the line it receives a shock. After a few weeks the dog becomes a model citizen. If there were any real justice in the world, there would be a little shock when citizens or political handlers stray from the merits of the issue or the provable facts. And when a political candidate lies, or attacks his (or her) opponent, or tries to hide behind veterans or the American flag or the Bible, that should bring on the taser.

Here are some of the "arguments" I would like to see discouraged by timely electric shocks:

1. Questioning the motives of the other citizens. Example: "Anyone who votes against Measure 6 has never gone through a divorce?" Really? How do you know?

2. Deliberately exaggerating the consequences or the cost of some proposed measure. The dollar numbers being thrown around about Measure 5, for example, the Clean Water amendment, rise to more insane and apocalyptic levels week by week. We need to vote on the merits of this proposal, not on the myths.

3. If you read letters to the editor across North Dakota, the writer's preferred vote always leads to paradise on earth or at least preserves the happy status quo, and the other option (the wrong vote) leads to the end of civilization as we know it. This is known as "binary thinking" or "the law of the occluded middle."

4. Accusing "out of state interests" of intruding themselves into the purity of North Dakota life. In almost every case, both sides take all the out of state money they can. I find it interesting that a state whose shale fields are now being developed with gigantic quantities of out of state money provided mostly by out of state entities to bring up oil that mostly benefits out of state interests, could be so prickly about "out of state" intrusion into the political process. Perhaps I am missing something.

5. Playing the "freedom" card. Example: "If you ban smoking in restaurants, you are letting them take away our freedoms, the kind our Founding Fathers intended, the kind we fought for in World War II?" Really? That's what WWII was about? Who knew?

And 6. Normalizing the worst-case scenario and the slippery slope. Here's the logic. "If Measure 7 passes, the Rexall Drug Store in such and such a village may have to close. Ergo, if Measure 7 passes, all small town drug stores will close. If all small town drugstores close, our children will die of strep throat. This will lead to the collapse of rural America. Do you love your country?" This is also known as reductio ad absurdam. But you see it every day in some form or other.

Call me a naïve idealist, but it seems to me that the system only really works if election "debate" clarifies the issues and provides citizens with the information they need to make responsible choices on election day. Given all the time and the vast sums of money devoted to these elections, the citizen who walks into the voting booth should have a clear idea of what a proposed ballot measure would do, what it would not do, what problem it is trying to solve, at what cost, what problems it might in turn create, who is likely to gain from its passage, and who is likely to lose. In other words, what we need is good information, not political spin.

As usual, we'll muddle through. But we deserve better.