Last night’s Republican presidential debate is alive and well on social media this morning. The highlights (and inevitable lowlights) are being mocked and parsed ad nauseam.
Without question, in the gnat-like attention span of much of our electorate, American politics has been reduced to a crude form of entertainment. Even the analysis, as thoughtful as it tries to be, often has to be mashed through the comedic grinder of the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Jimmy Fallon to get the most attention and understanding.
That’s a trend that should be a great cause for concern. It suggests an eager willingness to sit out the process.
Many people scour blogs and news sites that echo their political values, thinking that usurps being engaged. They seek reiteration rather than the diversification of ideas, using that validation to tiptoe past legitimate concerns that truly require policy changes or legislation. The issues affecting our daily lives should not be made into laughs, memes and sound bites. We need meaningful discussion (certainly more than 140 characters) and debate in order to understand all arguments — not just the ones that match our political stripes. An educated electorate is essential for our democracy to work to its unique potential.
It is certainly noteworthy that millions of Americans have tuned in to these early GOP debates. But it is as if they are watching for the flub, the malapropism or the fumble. What will be the punch line? The best use of candidates’ faces for lip dubbing?
The men and women on both sides of the aisle are, at a core level, talking about real issues that matter to Americans: income inequality, job growth, immigration, racism, social justice and more. These are issues deeply dividing and affecting every community in our nation. Yet the messages seem to be getting lost in the stream of social media and news blips.
In Vermont, we may be more tuned into the politics because we have a horse in this presidential race. Bernie Sanders has, without question, raised the level of debate on certain issues to a national stage. Likewise, Donald Trump, with his bombastic posturing, has also put issues like immigration front and center.
Yet, with the exception of pundits (and a few high-profile know-it-alls), the country — voters and the media alike — is not really exploring these issues, or pressing candidates for solutions, or holding them accountable on their bold (and often outrageous) positions.
The political process, as entertaining as it can be, is something to be appreciated, respected and coveted.
All of us must become more engaged in the process, which includes understanding these complicated issues. Only then can we be armed with the ability in both the primaries and the November 2016 election to be the ones who can keep the process honest and accountable. We vet the candidates; they do not vet us. The candidates do not get to choose our direction, or what issues they deem important for discussion — or political gain. As voters, we get that distinction. We need to be able to state why we believe one candidate is better than another, not because some blogger or TV personality told us so. Some politicians are banking on that blissful ignorance to get them into higher office.
Plato wrote, “What shall we say about those spectators, then, who can see a plurality of beautiful things, but not beauty itself, and who are incapable of following if someone else tries to lead them to it, and who can see many moral actions, but not morality itself, and so on? That they only ever entertain beliefs, and do not know any of the things they believe?”
There are plenty of reasons we might tune out, especially with the presidential races many months away. But the groundwork being laid today, the discussions being had, will be the leverage for the parties in the coming months. With national politics in full swing, we must do our due diligence. In the end, the joke could be on all of us if we don’t.