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The Rising Decibels of Our Political Discourse
By Damon Circosta
Published: Aug. 13, 2009
RALEIGH - It seems like the volume has been turned up in our political discourse lately.
First was the extremely heated election of 2008, when North Carolina became ground zero in both the Democratic presidential primary and the general election. Then came an intense legislative session and an extremely contentious battle over the state budget.
Maybe it’s our uncertain economic situation, or perhaps a once-in-a-generation realignment of our politics. Whatever it is, people are tuning into what happens in government in a way that hasn’t happened in my lifetime
I haven’t quite figured what to make of all this. Those of us who have been lifelong policy geeks see this newfound interest in government both exhilarating and exasperating.
Never have so many political wonks been so excited to share all their stored up information on government and policy now that public affairs are en vogue. This newfound interest in civics has been a boon for us policy geeks, except for one problem: instead of productive discussions, everyone is yelling.
Scores of elected officials, from city council to the president, have heard more shouts and screams over the past 18 months than almost any other time in recent history. Stories of shouting matches at town hall meetings and confrontations between lawmakers fill the newspapers.
It has to be quite a shock to go from speaking to half-empty auditoriums to overflow crowds that are chanting and yelling. It’s as if we went from complete apathy to zealous passion and skipped any notion of enthusiastic -- but tempered -- civil discourse.
I’m not saying that we should only have stiff, robotic discussions about these issues. What happens in our government affects us all and we should care deeply about what goes on there. But I think we could all benefit from more discussion and less reflexive shouting.
We live in an age of shout politics. With a 24-hour news cycle and news media addicted to the ad revenue that comes from higher ratings, whatever is getting covered must be entertaining. Conflict, real or imagined, is good for ratings. Thus a civil, earnest dialogue between elected official and constituent doesn’t make the news. A large, boisterous demonstration does.
While interest in civic affairs tends to ebb and flow, these moments when we are all really tuned in don’t last long. If we can find a way to channel this energy and enthusiasm, and if these exciting debates can get people motivated to stay informed, our democracy will be better for it.
If such enthusiasm morphs into a continued and renewed interest in our shared political future, there isn’t a single policy issue we can’t solve.
If, on the other hand, we just yell and shout until our voices are shot and our ears are ringing it won’t be long before we all get sick of being involved. Let’s hope that out of the yelling and shouting comes something worthwhile.