The National Catholic Review
Thomas J. Massaro
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How active a citizen are you? Do you make an effort to know the issues and communicate your opinions? Do you make your voice heard often, not just at the voting booth, but even between elections?

The word democracy has been employed to describe many types of arrangements. The ancient Greeks tried their own version of (a deeply flawed) direct democracy, gathering thousands of citizens in a single public place to debate and vote on public issues. Less ambitious schemas to establish representative democracy flourished in many republics in recent centuries. The authors of many national constitutions have displayed eagerness to assume the mantle of democracy, even when the level of actual participation by the populace in public decisions remains quite low.

The success of anything worthy of being called a democracy rests squarely upon the maintenance of an informed citizenry. Common folks need to understand at least the fundamentals behind public issues before they can express their opinions and advocate policy change. But I am growing increasingly fearful that this requirement may be asking too much in our complex contemporary world. What a reach it is to expect even a small fraction of U.S. citizens to develop a well-informed opinion on how best to reform health insurance, what troop levels to maintain in Afghanistan and how to adjust the financial system to prevent future crises. Sheer complexity quickly outruns the ability of the public to gather information and sustain interest.

It is unrealistic to expect public opinion to count for something if the public is having trouble forming any opinions at all. These are the worries that keep political scientists up at night. Their elegant models of interest-group pluralism and opinion-leader influence are reduced to dust if we despair of widespread mastery of public affairs. If we are forced to discount the influence of public opinion on the policymaking process, where does that leave us? The skeptics are gaining the upper hand.

My nominee for the weakest link in this particular chain is the media. The struggling print media cannot support the level of hard news reportage we took for granted for decades, and the electronic media on the whole are vastly disappointing. The coverage of recent developments in domestic and foreign policy on blogs and cable outlets has consistently shed more heat than light. Those who pass for journalists these days seem content to divide us rather than inform us, as they play to the niche audiences they attract.

I recently stumbled across one proposed antidote to the prevalence of the sound bites that substitute for well-informed analysis. This initiative addresses the misinformation surrounding the marquee issue of the year: the debate about health care reform. By logging onto www.hearthebill.org, any citizen with 24 hours to spare can hear a full audio reading of the entire thousand-plus pages of H.R. 3200, the major health care bill proposed by House Democrats. It is as close to a dramatic reading as a few dozen voices can render, given the technical and repetitive prose of The Congressional Record. If listeners do not succumb to the inevitable drowsiness that comes from hearing the dense language of high-grade legalese, they might just come away better informed about the key public issue of our day.

Of course, I cannot seriously recommend this as a solution to the problem of a poorly informed citizenry. In the era before the Internet, hardly anybody spent the requisite hours in a library poring over The Congressional Record. Little encouragement can be drawn from the fact that this ascetic practice has been replaced by up-to-the-minute Web postings of legislative progress. (You could read all 564 proposed amendments to the Democratic-sponsored health care bill before the Senate Finance Committee from any desktop or laptop within hours of their submission.)

But it is good to know that there is some way for motivated citizens to obtain direct access to unfiltered information regarding legislation that will alter the course of our nation. What we need now are more routine and user-friendly ways of gathering the information we, as citizens, require to fulfill our public duties. On this nothing less than the fate of our democracy rests.

Thomas Massaro, S.J., teaches social ethics at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Comments

Christopher Mulcahy | 10/19/2009 - 3:32pm

Davy Crockett not only shot him a bear when he was only three, but he also was a congressman.  He did OK as a congressman, I would argue, because the issues were straightforward and few.  Here’s proof:

 

He went of to Congress and served a spell
Fixin' up the government and laws as well.
Took over Washington, I heard tell,
And patched up the crack in the Liberty Bell.

 

Would he do as well today? Of course not, and neither can we.  Government is too big.  We have handed over too much responsibility to Uncle Sam.  Actually, we abandoned Uncle Sam and now think of him as “Daddy”—Daddy, fix this,  Daddy fix that.  “My toe hurts.”  Give me national health insurance.  Give me unemployment insurance. Issues?  Here’s the issue—“Give me something for free, please.”

 

Free stuff is complicated. Free stuff is expensive.  Davy figured it all out and quit.

KEVIN KERSTEN S J REV | 10/16/2009 - 2:32pm
Any reader of America will recognize and likely affirm that Father Massaro's challenge to the media industry to help the public deal with today's vital, massive and complex issues makes eminent sense.  And the Health Care issue is a very good choice for illustrating his position. The devil will be in the details of work required to discover just how to meet the challenge.  
Using television as my own way to illustrate, the rubber will hit the road when the men and women of the that industry take the time to reflect, discern, and then actually work together, using the creative abilities they are so gifted with, to explore and initiate new ways to address these big issues. They will also need to let go of programming whose style and function is to hold merely the attention of media consumers rather than engage their hearts and minds with substantive material.  Further, they will need to devote bigger time blocks to the issues, more often in prime time, in order to present the issues with adequate background and sufficient information.  Finally, they will need to rely less on their own anchors and reporters and more on knowledgeable outside experts to develop positions, debate them, and, most especially, to do so without wasting the TV viewing public's time and energy by dressing what they present with devices of political rhetoric and simplistic argument.
joe driscoll | 10/16/2009 - 12:22pm
Father Massaro makes some excellent points here. The basic flaw in public opinion today is that people no longer want to take the time to learn enough to form an intelligent decision. They'd rather be told what they should believe. "Don't tell me what is is, Tell me what I should think." They want someone else to form an opinion for them. Hence the rise of wing-nuts on both ends of the political spectrum. Our media today, such as it is, concentrates on what will sell, not what's happening in the world. We endlessly encounter the drama of Jon and Kate while stories of Charlie Rangle are buried on page 13. CNN acknowledged that their nightly news content was based on the ratings of their internet site. If more people read about Hollywood scandals than current events, then the scandals led the news. "We report what you want to hear." That's frightening.  And the cable news programs are inevitably followed by a show where he/she shouts the loudest is the rightest. Better yet, open a newspaper and for every column inch of news there's ten inches of advertising.
 
With that situation in mind, I would be hesitant to trust public opinion much in policy making. Watch the polls. See how public opinion can change so drastically in a week's time. Look at California where the legislature's hands are tied by the referendum requirements. That's an example of public opinion's influence on policy making at it's finest. The Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court has gone so far as to say that the state in now dysfunctional. And would I trust public opinion to influence troop levels in Afghanistan when most people can't even find it on a map?
 
I recently received an e-mail from a right wing evangelical "Christian" friend which lambasted the ACLU and it's efforts to ban crosses from National Cemetaries and prohibit the name of Jesus being used by Navy Chaplains. And of course the ACLU is funded by U.S. taxpayers. I pointed out that none of this is true (thanks, Factcheck). She responded that "No one really cares much about the details." And therein lies the problem. No one cares about the details. Perhaps they should.

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