‘Government We Deserve’

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

“Every nation gets the government it deserves.”  -- Joseph de Maistre – 1811, French Philosopher

In today’s world, Joseph de Maistre ‘s observation is an indictment of our entire political system. It starts with citizens who tune out of the political process and are easily manipulated by slogans, inflammatory rhetoric, and impossible promises. Most of us don’t participate in the early stages of the campaigns when candidates for office are selected. As a result, the far right and far left set the foundation for what comes later as they choose our candidates and their platforms.

In his book Bowling Alone Robert Putnam said that the “average college graduate knows little more today about public affairs than the average high school graduate did in the 1940s.” While we know less today, we have become more vitriolic, more cemented in our beliefs, and our ignorance allows us to take to heart more readily the twisted truths we are fed.

We lament about the state of government in America, in Minnesota, and to some degree even at the local level. But the primary fault, as well as the key to change, is in a mirror.

Our national media is a disgrace in its partisanship and its focus on the trivial and sensational. Ratings, and thus advertising dollars, come with viewership. It is the sordid, the rumor and innuendo, the unsubstantiated but inflammatory claims, the coverage of the outrageous without countering it with fact, that lead to an electorate with a shallow knowledge of their candidates. But theatrics, not substance, brings eyeballs to the television screen.

What our news media also does is create a polarized view of America, taking away common ground, making not just compromise, but even civility, nearly impossible.

“Democracy requires citizens see things from one another’s point of view, but instead we’re more and more enclosed in our own bubbles,” Eli Pariser writes in his book The Filter Bubble. “Democracy requires a reliance on shared fact; instead, we’re being offered parallel but separate universes.”

Not all media are so craven as to mold their news around ratings and shallow play-by-play of trivial, but sensational, news clips. Newspapers, which still supply about 85 percent of all original reporting in this nation, do a far better job of presenting stories with substance.

However, the Republican Party has attacked the press, lumping newspapers with television, as they try to create villains for their base to rally against. Donald Trump has banned reporters from The Washington Post from his campaign. He has threatened multiple times to sue the media for true, but unflattering, stories. Republicans have attacked public television, including programs like The News Hour, the best, most impartial reporting on the television. It threatens constantly to strip any funding for public broadcasting. Of course, The News Hour gets just a fraction of the nation’s viewership because it is “boring” to most people looking instead for the partisan, hyperbolic reporting on the network programs.

“News shapes our sense of the world, and of what’s important, of the scale and color, and character of our problems,” Pariser writes. “More important, it provides the foundation of shared experience and shared knowledge on which democracy is built. Unless we understand the big problems our society faces, we can’t act together to fix them….”

When all the ballots have been cast, roughly just over half the eligible voters in the nation will have gone to the polls. Whichever candidate wins will do so with just over half the vote. That means that he or she will go to the White House with a “mandate” from between 25 and 30 percent of the American public. That is not a mandate from which to dictate, but one from which compromise is required. But that won’t happen

Our politicians, whose re-election is more important than any principle, play their part. They are often people who put career and party before nation.  But then they are required to play to their party’s base that represents those who are going to show up in the primaries. Ignore the base and you’ll soon be challenged by someone more radical; someone who stirs the passions of angry constituents. That person will boot you from office.

As we write this column we don’t know the outcome of Tuesday’s election. But what we do know is that many voters were disgusted with their choices. Some, so disgusted with our current state of politics were willing to vote for someone wholly unqualified for the job of president, but whom they believed would shake up Washington and the current broken political system.

Pounding on an engine that won’t start with a hammer is most often doing nothing more than pounding one big hunk of steel with a small hunk of steel simply taking out your frustrations. If you believe the guy with the hammer is a mechanic, his resorting to a hammer to fix the problem should have been your first clue that his skills weren’t up to the job. Meanwhile, you’re going nowhere, or worse, doing permanent damage.

Despite all the promises we have heard during this ugly presidential campaign, it is congress that will often decide what happens and what doesn’t. You can put the most radical person in the White House, but the House and Senate can block, or transform beyond recognition, anything he or she puts forward. And we re-elect 80 to 85 percent of the House and Senate members each election cycle – that is not a formula for change.

Still, the president has the power to engage us in combat, in destructive trade wars, suppress America’s reputation for compassion, make decisions that are ruinous for finance, and lower respect for our nation in the world. That respect is essential to getting other countries to work with us on key issues of critical national, and international, importance. It will affect our ability to keep this nation safe and fiscally stable.

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