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Bumper Sticker Politics

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As a Government professor at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, one of the main themes I teach my students is to avoid the temptation to engage in "bumper sticker politics." What I mean by this is that students who acquire a quality liberal arts education (such as the one Centre provides) have the tools at their disposal to be able to debate and discuss important civic issues with a certain degree of sophistication that is often lacking in the wider public discourse. In other words, students should try, as Ezra Klein recently put it, to "extract the smart conversation" from the otherwise "not smart" back-and-forth of the campaign dialogue.

The discussion of important political issues, I teach my students, deserves something more than a catchy slogan or 10 second soundbite that serves only to simplify what are, in reality, very complicated, multifaceted issues that often have multiple "right" answers, depending on one's perspective, priorities, and interests.

In the middle of campaign season, we see examples of "bumper sticker politics" all over the place. I'm referring to things like when President Obama describes Governor Romney's tax plan as "Robin Hood in Reverse ... it's Romney Hood" or when he talks about his health care reform legislation: "They call it Obamacare. It's true -- I care. The other side's plan is the Romney Doesn't Care Plan." To me, "bumper sticker politics" also includes things like when Governor Romney accuses President Obama of making a global "Apology Tour" or deliberately taking a statement out of context and turning it into an entire campaign theme: "We built it, Mr. President." Sure, it all makes for good bumper stickers... but is this really the kind of standard of political discourse that we want our presidential candidates set for the rest of the nation?

Unfortunately, the structure of today's political environment does not lend itself well to a more sophisticated type of communication. Politicians are encouraged to over-simplify issues and speak in soundbites by the news media and a voting public with a very short attention span. Personally, I think that most politicians would prefer to be able to debate issues in a more nuanced fashion, but the reality of the modern campaign environments simply punishes answers to questions that suggest complexity or that take more than fifteen seconds to explain.

Presidential debates are one of the rare places in our campaign tradition where candidates are not quite as constrained. While it's very true that candidates are still required to give short, concise, simplistic answers to questions, they at least have slightly more freedom in explaining their preferences and opinions. Depending on the moderator, candidates usually have anywhere from two to five minutes to answer a particular question, rather than 10-15 seconds. It still isn't much, but they have the opportunity to engage the issues at a level that they're unable to do in a 30-second campaign advertisement.

I was recently interviewed by a news reporter about the upcoming vice presidential debate at Centre College. As part of the interview, I was asked: "what do you hope to see coming out of this debate?" Because I was forced, just like the politicians are, to give a 15-second response, I was not able to answer the question the way I really would have liked. My ideal response would have been this:

"I hope that the candidates resist the urge to engage in 'bumper sticker politics.' I hope that they'll take the opportunity to engage in some thoughtful, nuanced discussion of their respective positions, perhaps even occasionally acknowledging the merits of their opponent's perspective. While candidates should still argue strongly for their case, I hope that they'll take the opportunity to set an example to the American public that our political discourse doesn't have to simplistic, obtuse, or discourteous. Instead, it can be thoughtful, informed, and respectful."

Research has shown that presidential debates are profoundly educational experiences. While candidates don't often sway many voters or change many minds as a result of their debate performances, they do succeed in educating many in the voting public of their respective positions so that voters can cast a more well-informed vote. Where better to hold presidential debates than at college campuses? Especially those in the liberal arts tradition like Centre College, whose primary mission is to provide students with a broad educational foundation that allows them to engage the world from a variety of perspectives.

Ultimately, this is what I would like to see from this year's debates: each of the candidates doing their best to inform the electorate of their respective positions in a thoughtful and respectful way while avoiding the temptation to engage in "bumper sticker politics." I hope our contenders do not let us down.

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