We live in a culture in which opinions are the dominant form of political currency. People rarely regard opinions as valid sources of information. The word is defined by its subjectivity. Yet as we ridicule opinions for their inherent partiality, we arbitrarily esteem the opinions of political analysts simply because they are accompanied by the glare of television cameras and the buzz of punditry. As a result, instead of critically discussing political issues among ourselves, we depend on the bipolar opinions of news analysts to defend our own ambiguity.
Civic participation in the United States is less contingent on whether we vote than whether we tune in, and learning the latest buzzwords is easier than challenging conventional opinions. It seems that we would rather win an argument with vague abstractions than feasible proposals.
But opinions cannot form solutions. Only ideas can. While opinions are dogmatic weapons that we use to attack opponents, ideas are the practical results of public deliberation. Today, citizens cannot challenge political analysts as they can meteorologists by looking out the window. City hall petitions are bureaucratic and uninviting, and there are no publicly financed group discussion programs to debate contemporary issues. Without an atmosphere of public discourse, analysts’ opinions not only remain unilateral but also dangerously indisputable.
Political debates have become televised lexical crapshoots. The proceedings now more closely resemble caricatured skits than substantive discourse. Participants do not deliberate and form negotiated conclusions but instead act like well-dressed faucets, deluging their opponents with as many opinions as they can dispense. Even more frustrating are the analyses afterward, in which so-called experts scrutinize the sideshow. Throughout, there are no opportunities for public interaction.
Communities should instead rally around local and national debates as microphones of expression and as tools for constructing policy. Where are New Orleans residents in the national dialogue about the future of their city? Why must one mayor represent the voices of millions of people scattered around the country? Where are the voices of students in Washington’s discussion over the future of education policy? What do failing high school students think about vouchers and standardized testing? I do not think many analysts have bothered to ask them.
Programs like the Urban Debate League that organize interscholastic debate competitions are educational and help involve local communities in the larger political process. Admittedly, debate can sometimes act as an ivory tower from which people spot problems that no one wants to address. But without such lookout posts, the public might never discover constructive ideas.
Other underutilized alternatives include small-group discussion programs that culminate in town-hall style debates with local or state representatives. Such programs would not teach participants to argue with one another but rather train them to value both the merits and flaws of their own views as they engage directly opposing positions. Critical thinking is a fundamental skill for collaboration and consensus.
Consensus does not mean ideological moderation or active complacency. Extremism and political activism each have their purpose. Ideologically extreme positions have included the right to vote and the weekend, while political activism compels bystanders to march when they would otherwise remain seated. Activism and immoderation continue to give voices to minorities, from black Americans to conservative professors. Both inspire change.
But change arises only when private opinions are made into public ones, and when the individual will is transformed into a general will. When extremism is synonymous with inflexibility, it will always remain opaque in the public imagination. When activists embrace principles at the expense of practicality, real change will never blossom. Until issues are dissected and examined before they are implemented; until disenfranchised members of society are given the opportunity to speak with their minds in addition to their votes; and until change is based on who has the best possible solution rather than who has the most political power, division will equal divisiveness, and moderate complacency will be the only practical recourse.
A functioning democracy requires input from all of its members, especially those not in direct control of policy. The institutionalization of debating societies within local communities could involve more citizens within the democratic process and diminish the nation’s reliance on commentators whose limited perspectives reflect limited interests. Democracy in the United States would profit from a more equitable form of public deliberation. This is not just an opinion. It is an idea.