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Talk Radio and the Death of Democracy

I spent a half an hour in purgatory on Tuesday. Actually, it was talk radio. I took questions on the Kagan nomination.

Most people had thoughtful observations (e.g., there has not been a Southerner on the Court in a long time) or insightful questions (e.g., why won’t nominees every say anything of substance?). But others showed why I fear for democracy. One questioner began by announcing that the President appoints  “pretty radical” people and wondered if Kagan would be another one. I gave the standard response: she is viewed as a pragmatic, cautious thinker with great personal skill bridging ideological division. But I began that answer by saying that I “wasn’t sure I agree that the President surrounds himself with radicals.’

That apparently lit up the phones. Donna from Cabot, her voice shaking, invoked Van Jones et al (“something anyone can see by reading the headlines”) and announced that “with all due respect,” she could not believe anything I said. Later, Bill, a (former?) student, yelled into his cell phone, that I was a “left wing democrat” (a seeming insult) and that “we don’t need any more radical liberals.”

I love a good debate as much as the next person but these people weren’t interested in debate.  For Donna and Bill, disagreement is not possible.  Donna will only “believe” people who completely agree with her conclusions while Bill finds no room for people who have a different political outlook. But if we cannot calmly examine the facts or tolerate opposing points of view, democratic governance is impossible. Disagreement is important but respect and humility are fundamental. We are not enemies if we disagree and, no matter how certain we are, we may be wrong.But for the Donna’s and the Bill’s there is no uncertainty and no middle ground.

Take any important political issue and you will see this played out over and over. Global warming is a conspiracy. Health Care Reform will steal your freedoms and kill your grandmother. Illegal immigrants have no rights whatsoever and must be rooted out and sent home. Net Neutrality is a Marxist plot to allow President Obama to take over the internet.

We have to be able to talk about the best way to solve our problems but we will never be able to get there if people claim their own reality or want to exclude opposite points of view from the debate. I fear for our democracy.

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