Has America Lost the Ability to Consider New Ideas?

09/16/2011 11:43 am ET | Updated Nov 16, 2011
  • Peter Smirniotopoulos Development strategist, urban theorist, educator, opinion writer, author, and independent consultant.

I am beginning to wonder whether American politics has become so fractured, contentious, and partisan, and the American voter so entrenched in her or his respective position, that it is no longer possible to present, much less have an open discussion about, new ideas; especially big ideas, the kind of which I believe we are desperately in need.

If you accept the proposition that approximately 25 percent of American voters occupy each end of the political spectrum (i.e. what might be called the Far Right and the Far Left, respectively), then the remaining 50 percent would be comprised of more-moderate Republicans, more-moderate Democrats, Independents, and those claiming a third-party affiliation that doesn't fit ideologically at either extreme, occupying "the middle." Then it can be argued that at any given point in time, on any political issue, the two extremes are preventing the middle from benefiting from an open and honest dialogue.

Such discussion is routinely drowned out by extremists at both ends of the political spectrum before an honest conversation, an open dialogue, can even be begun.

This phenomenon, of course, should come as no surprise to anyone who has been engaged in political discourse and elections (particularly since the 2008 presidential election), or to anyone who otherwise is paying attention to politics in this country. What is surprising, however, is that no one seems to care about this degradation of our national dialogue, despite the fact that this phenomenon may be the single most-important development in the history of our democracy.

I have not so much had a sudden epiphany about this (you know, the kind accompanied by a flash of light and an uplifting musical score) as I have had a gradual realization that this is the way it is, and that this is not good. Over the past two years it has become ever clearer that as a people we are seemingly incapable of having an adult conversation at a national level about pretty much anything.

This realization started for me with the health care debate, which devolved into a health insurance debate (well, more like an ugly fistfight over who pays for what in the health care system), when those opposed to doing anything to change the status quo regarding health care in this country (i.e. all of the special interests currently benefiting from the present system) persuaded some in Congress, and talking heads on cable news and radio programs, and pundits in the blogosphere, that the last thing we needed was a candid discussion about out-of-control health care costs, over 30 million uninsured, falling metrics in health care outcomes such as infant mortality, etc.

So effective were the strategies for precluding an honest discussion -- my favorite was the term "Death Panels," because it was only two words yet so incredibly evocative and effective -- that despite starting out with 71 percent of Americans believing in universal health care, at what should have been the beginning of a national discussion, even the fall-back position of a public option was jettisoned pretty quickly from the conversation. This intentional preclusion of an open and honest discussion about what would be in the best interest of "the American people," rather than what best-suited a handful of powerful special interests, did the nation and our democratic process a tremendous disservice. And we've been arguing about the outcome ever since.

From there, like some high school senior being caught completely off-guard -- realizing that final exams were right around the corner -- we stumbled into and through the "debt ceiling debate." Again, misinformation and easily digestible sound bites were substituted for a rational, fact-based discussion benefiting the American people about how much debt the country had accumulated; how we got to that point and why it was bad; what the alternative solutions might be for solving the problem; and the like. In the end, a short-term compromise avoided a default on the country's obligations and the ensuing complete collapse of our financial and fiscal systems, although the country's AAA credit-rating took a hit from Standard & Poor's (and, I believe, rightly so). The larger issue of reducing the national debt, ironically, got kicked down the road to the Super Committee, which this week has commenced its meetings in no more favorable of an environment for honest dialogue then where Congress left off in early August (but at least with a little more time to reach something approximating consensus; we shall see).

As with the health care debate or, more particularly, the lack thereof, the debt ceiling debate -- which really should be treated as a subset of the debate about the appropriate roles of the federal government, how much it should cost to discharge those responsibilities, and how we should pay for it -- involves serious and complex issues. All Americans deserve to have the benefit of an open discussion about it. It's just not going to happen, however, because we're no longer predisposed to insisting upon such an open and honest dialogue, captive as we are to the whims of powerful special interests that seemingly control most, if not all, of our elected leaders, in one manner or another.

The final event in this troika comprising my simmering epiphany, if you will, is the current "debate" (again, I use that verb very, very loosely) over how to get the economy moving again and start to get some of our 14 million unemployed back to work. What I like to call the president's "Big Jobs Speech" was given to a joint session of Congress on September 8. One could argue that the foundation for the package of job-creating measures comprising The American Jobs Act was built-in consensus (although I would and have suggested it was too-clever by half in this regard and ergo doomed to the indignities from which it now suffers).

The president and his economic team crafted an amalgam of somewhat disparate but tried-and-true job-creating measures, many of which had previously been supported at either the federal or state level by Republicans. Consequently, the number one quality of the American Jobs Act was intended to be the ease with which Congress should have been able to embrace and pass it. It is evident at this point, unfortunately, that the chances of even half of the American Jobs Act passing the current Congress in the form in which it was submitted by the president falls somewhere between "slim" and "none." Each end of our political spectrum (the 25 percent polar-opposites referenced above) girded their loins and have come forth implementing their respective strategies of either advocating for ( in reality three have already been some defections among elected Democratic Congressmen) or killing substantially this proposed legislation, but each with the same primary goal of saving face on the subject of job creation and propping up the flagging economy, in order to support their election pitches for the 2012 campaigns already underway.

There are two things of significance about this final component of my epiphany troika. The first one is the American Jobs Act isn't even a big idea. It is in most respects a very modest idea; a nibbling around the edges of the fundamental, structural issue of unemployment that truly will only be solved with big ideas (more on this next week). I, indeed, last week referred to it as "a Band-Aid on a shotgun blast."

The second thing of significance, however, at least to me is the din of traitorous accusations I suffered from the extreme Left in response to last week's blog post, entitled "Too Little, Too Late: The President's 'Big Jobs Speech.'" If constructive criticism of even modest ideas is unwelcome in our public discourse, then clearly there is no room for considering and debating the kind of truly big, novel ideas that are needed to help us emerge from our ongoing fiscal and economic malaise.

Last week's blog post that provoked such strong reactions in turn was tied back to one the week before entitled "Whatever Happened to 'the Vision Thing,' Revisited," which offered, among other things, the following caution and prescription:

Runaway capitalism -- which conferred benefits very selectively, albeit very handsomely, on a small percentage of our population -- has proven to be both a very destructive force (e.g. the mortgage meltdown; the Deepwater Horizon environmental disaster; etc.), as well as one that requires governmental intervention when it goes awry (e.g. the TARP program; the Federal Reserve Bank's interventions in the marketplace; various federal foreclosure prevention programs; the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; etc.; etc.; etc. ad nauseum). Absent such a framework for the future, the national debate has been the victim of an increasingly acute form of intellectual paralysis: The short-term mindsets of our elected officials and the voters -- tied to the two-year election cycle -- force debate on inherently inadequate, short-term solutions to substantial, long-term problems. Because we have no shared vision of the country's future, against which short-term solutions might be measured, there are no metrics for productive discourse. Hence, our so-called "leaders" argue in reliance on their "principles," rather than with a broader view toward implementing the future we want to see.

Pretty radical, eh?

Sour grapes some of you may (and certainly will) respond to this last part; I genuinely look forward to your kind comments in this regard. However, I am far more thick-skinned than that to resort to sour grapes. But please consider this: The concept of "the marketplace of ideas" has been with us since some of the earliest notions about "what is a democracy" were being... well... discussed (Got irony, anyone?).

Socrates considered the concept of a marketplace of ideas, although he did not talk about it in those terms. Indeed, his entire method of teaching was premised on it.

Both Thomas Jefferson and the political philosopher he most admired and emulated, John Locke, also wrote about the importance and necessity to a functioning and free democratic society of having a marketplace of ideas (again, not employing that phrase, which was not coined, to my knowledge, until the mid-20th Century).

Indeed, our country was formed by people who fled England and other parts of Europe because they were being persecuted for having ideas different from their reigning monarchies. In the Federalist Papers, still considered the definitive, contemporaneous treatise on what the Founding Fathers intended for the country and embodied in our Constitution, the concept of a marketplace of ideas is more than a fleeting notion. And yet, in 2011, we have managed to come to a point where even the most modest of ideas, when viewed in the grand scheme of things, and presented with the sincerest of intentions, can't get a fair consideration and an open and honest public dialogue.

The Founding Fathers, as reflected in the writings of The Federalist Papers, also championed another notion that is absolutely fundamental to our system of government: That the tyranny of the majority would never run roughshod over the interests of the minority.

The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary." James Madison, Federalist No. 10, "The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection" (cont.'d), New York Packet, November 23, 1787

Ironically, when you have either extreme segment of the electorate -- that 25 percent at each end of the political spectrum I posited at the outset -- dominating the debate and drowning out the reasonable discussion and solutions that the 50 percent in the middle deserve if only an open dialogue was valued and fostered -- this protection assured by the Founding Fathers under the Constitution has been stood upon its head.

I wonder what Socrates, John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, among others, would have to say about that?