"An educated consumer is our best customer."
So responded NBC News anchor Brian Williams' to John Stewart when the Daily Show host last month asked why, despite the entry of the "wonkish" Paul Ryan to the 2012 campaign, media stories were still not focused on substantive policy issues. Instead, the more ballyhooed story lines of mid-August were Ryan's seven-minute abs and the fact that he once had a way with b-o-l-o-g-n-a.
Williams' response was taken from Sy Syms, the eponymous American businessman who made his money with a chain of off-price clothing stores. The NBC anchor's point was that the public gets the news, and the campaigns, that it deserves. The institutions of media and government are a reflection of us. News outlets did and do report substantive news, but audience share is the goal. Unfortunately, the news stories that attract viewers, and thus dominate the airwaves, are not the ones with cogent analysis of complex policy issues. They are the ones about other things.
Fast forward to mid-September, with the political conventions recently completed. There is one widely recognized winner from the conventions -- Bill Clinton. The former president showed his political mastery, with pundits of all stripes hailing his as easily the most outstanding of tens of convention speeches. His unique feat? He discussed meaningful policy details in his speech.
We are led to ask, is Williams' assertion correct? Are the citizens of this country, by virtue of our general lack of political fluency, the cause of this lackluster discourse? The numbers support the idea.
Approximately one out of three U.S. Citizens can name all three branches of government. Meanwhile, an equal amount can't name any of the three. Only 24 percent of 12th graders scored proficient or above on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exam, the second lowest of any measured subject (history was the lowest). The U.S. ranks 139 of 172 democracies in terms of voter participation.
The collective response to this civics gap is often one of hand-wringing, lamentation and resignation. We discuss how Washington is at a standstill. We lambast political parties for being more extreme and less interested in governing. The percentage of people that believe Congress is doing a good job may soon reach negative digits.
And yet, we continue to feed the beast. Campaign coffers bulge larger than ever, with estimates being that $6 billion will be spent during the 2012 presidential election. Half-baked TV ads will play to our baser instincts, knowing that only a small percentage of viewers will dig past the sound bite.
Lest we think the trend irreversible, we must be the change we want to see.
Start with the man in the mirror. Ask him to change his ways.
I have two simple suggestions for actions we the people can take in order to form that more perfect union and stop the hand-wringing.
First, let's raise our standards and ban use of the word "wonkish" to describe a politician. When the job is done correctly, politicians' business is the effective creation and implementation of policy. They damn well better be wonkish. No one remarks that their doctor is a real anatomy nut. We need to set a new standard for our political leaders' fluency in policy. Politicians who truly know policy will lead to better discourse.
Second, and much more seriously, we need to work on us -- the consumers of the information, the funders of the campaigns. Let's divert, each of us, some portion of our focus from the circus of the political sideshow, and instead participate in changing the foundational issues that allow the sideshow to prosper -- namely, lacking knowledge of civics and democratic rights, particularly in young people.
I've joined the non-profit Generation Citizen for exactly this reason. Generation Citizen pairs college mentors with secondary school teachers to teach a semester-long "actions civics" curriculum in lower-income schools. Students pick an issue relevant to them, create a campaign around it, and then present their campaign to fellow students, the community and public officials at the end of the semester. By supporting such programs with our time and our money, we change the cycle of political illiteracy creating poor politics. Programs like Generation Citizen create educated voters. The voters create better candidates.
Syms went out of business last year. Marketing slogan aside, I'd guess that the company closed due to legitimate business failings, and not just a lack of educated shoppers in the country. But the company's bankruptcy does make me wonder what happens to a system that requires educated consumers for its survival. Our democracy is founded on just such a model -- a vision of informed citizens self-governing. Let's make it our personal responsibility to better empower our citizenry, and uphold this fundamental ideal.
To learn more about Generation Citizen, go to www.generationcitizen.org.
Follow Matthew Tolliver on Twitter: www.twitter.com/matthewtolliver