What Is Needed to Improve Civility?

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Paul Krugman’s column today in the Times congratulates President Obama on a wonderful speech, but argues that coming together across differences is far from realistic.

But the truth is that we are a deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time. By all means, let’s listen to each other more carefully; but what we’ll discover, I fear, is how far apart we are. For the great divide in our politics isn’t really about pragmatic issues, about which policies work best; it’s about differences in those very moral imaginations Mr. Obama urges us to expand, about divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice.

On one hand, I can see where Krugman is going. Given the imposing, complicated issues we face as a country and our lightning fast discourse thanks to technology, improving civility in our politics is going to be beyond difficult.

On the other hand, I think it’s a cop out. I don’t think civility means what Krugman thinks it means. I agree with Krugman’s claim that we do have two fundamental worldviews at work in our nation; I embrace that reality. I am resistant to the deepening of the chasm between these paradigms over the past few decades. Today, people don’t listen to agree but to disagree. Somehow we have moved to a passive-aggressive style of politics where disagreement on issues is so dangerous that we avoid each other. As the Schiff letter I discussed the other day argues, politics becomes about the problem-solver, not about the problems being solved. As a result, few problems are solved.

Whether or not President Obama’s speech was enough to snap this country out of its trance can only be determined over the next few months/years. Our track record supports the view that it might just be a blip, and that the prevailing winds toward incivility will continue. The question I am left with is what will it take – short of a revolution – to change the way we operate?

Problems with the Political Process

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In a letter to the Washington Times, former Republican representative Peter Schiff (R-CT) explains why our political process is so removed from the problems people are actually facing.

This is how the game works in big-time politics: A potential candidate hires a polling firm to create a strategically written and scientifically executed poll to discover the buzzwords and simple campaign themes that ‘resonate’ among voters. Consultants then boil down the poll results to a few ‘winning’ message points and strategies. At that point, the modern candidate simply hammers away again and again at those sound bites. Winners are those who stay ‘on message’ while knocking their opponents ‘off message.’ It is of little consequence to the professionals that this process produces the kind of vacuous, unprincipled leaders who have brought our country to the doorstep of economic ruin.

Most of our officeholders, then, are empty robots, incapable of taking principled stands on issues. Sounds about right.

Framing of the Youth Vote (or Lack Thereof) In November

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Well, here we go again.

The New York Times published a story today out of Colorado looking at whether or not young voters could be turning away from the Democratic ranks — two years after serving as one of the bedrock groups in Obama’s voting coalition. The story seems to be fairly balanced in its views, as there are some younger voters proclaiming their continued allegiance to the President and the Democratic Party, but there are also young voters souring on the Democratic leadership.

One young voter was particularly descriptive in explaining her conflicted views.

Kristin Johnson, 23, like many other students interviewed here in recent days, said that a vote for Democrats in 2008, however passionate it was, did not a Democrat make. But she bristles just as much at the idea of being called a Republican.

“It’s like picking a team when you really don’t want to root for either team,” said Ms. Johnson, a communication studies major, who said she was undecided about parties and politics going into the general election campaign.

If Democrats are letting voters like Ms. Johnson get away from them across the country, the ramifications of this blunder will be felt for a long, long time. But that’s another topic for another day.

I wanted to focus on another passage from the article, one that reflects exactly what we have been facing throughout the last few special elections and what we will be fighting back through November and beyond.

How and whether millions of college students vote will help determine if Republicans win enough seats to retake the House or Senate, overturning the balance of power on Capitol Hill, and with it, Mr. Obama’s agenda. If students tune out and stay home it will also carry a profound message for American society about a generation that seemed so ready, so recently, to grab national politics by the lapels and shake.

While Kirk Johnson, the writer of this piece, does not go into specifics as far as what he means by a “profound message,” I think the odds are good that these few lines illuminate the common misunderstanding that Johnson and other journalists run with when writing these stories. They go with the surface level content, mindlessly reporting that youth did not show up at the polls and, thus, are not interested in voting. Apparently, we’re just not prepared.

But what about the other possibility: perhaps youth, suckered into this idea that politicians – maybe just once – might care about our issues, might be willing to talk big, think big, dream big, and for once exercise some pragmatic idealism, are let down. After being counted on to move this Democratic administration and congressional leadership into power, perhaps we are pissed off and making a political statement by refusing to be taken for granted.

That’s where this article falls short. There are other possibilities for why youth might not be voting. Not because we are apathetic, or turned off to politics. It’s because politicians gave us their word, we gave them our vote, and aside from a watered down health care bill, a stimulus that was too small, and maybe a few other bills, the work hasn’t been done, and the to-do list is getting longer. Furthermore, we are left hanging in the breeze, waiting for an honest explanation… still.. waiting.. for that honest explanation.

So don’t get us wrong: we’re still ready to shake some lapels. But in order to be most effective, we need candidates who are uncompromising in their tenacity on confronting big issues, but flexible in crafting solutions to our problems. And we need them to engage us.

We (and Obama) Should Embrace the Politics

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Last month Karlo and Colin wrote a post following Netroots Nation that called for some reconciliation in the name of progress.

Millennials carry the spirit of the founding fathers, perhaps more closely than generations in recent times. We understand that quality interactions with our counterparts advocating in good faith are more important than building huge e-mail lists based upon tactics of fear and hate. We talk to others, on this blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, and we do it with civility – or at least we try. We interact this way because we know others are watching and that everything we do and say is on-the-record. This does not mean that we don’t stick to our principles and our values and voice our opinions. What it does mean is that we know that we are having conversations with people, other than those that just agree with everything we say. We’re not about burning bridges; we’re about mending them and building them out into the future.

I agree with their vision as expressed here. I think the two predominant political camps in this country do spend too much time trying to find the most vulnerable aspects in the opposition’s activities for their own short-term political advantage. While I would point out that not all Millennials carry the spirit Karlo and Colin describe, the prevailing view among youth today is that compromise is important. “Pragmatic idealism” is a descriptor I have seen used for the way we view politics. To engage in this approach, though, I believe we need to take a step back and rethink the way we view politics.

Obama was elected on a platform that had at its core the notion that we could disagree without being disagreeable. And I still believe that’s one of the more redeeming qualities our president possesses, to be able to espouse that and enact it day to day. However, to our detriment, he does this while viewing politics as an episodic adventure, as a negative thing. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard him accusing someone of “playing politics.”

First, politics isn’t something to be played. It’s a reality. It happens all around us. My writing this blog is political. You reading it is political. You daring to think about it later today and telling someone about it (crossing fingers) is political. What I’m trying to convey is that politics is not a battle that can be joined and not joined.

In addition, politics is not inherently negative. Interestingly, in its original Greek form, the definition of politics is less loaded; with polis meaning “city state,” politikos roughly translates to “of the citizen,” signaling a citizen-centered view of politics with a focus on those things concerning city or state affairs. Aristotle argues that politics consists of the interplay between people from different backgrounds and interests, holding different views, while aiming to complete a task. In other words, politics is a constant that citizens cannot ignore; in fact, acknowledging and embracing one’s constant participation forms the heart of democracy.

Viewing politics this way, we can see why E.J. Dionne’s column is so discerning in today’s Post.

Obama’s mistake is captured by that disdainful reference to “politicking.” In a democracy, separating governing from “politicking” is impossible. “Politicking” is nothing less than the ongoing effort to convince free citizens of the merits of a set of ideas, policies and decisions. Voters feel better about politicians who put what they are doing in a compelling context. Citizens can endure setbacks as long as they believe the overall direction of the government’s approach is right.

I suppose this is another take on the whole “Obama needs a narrative” meme that has been playing out. But I like this because I think the critique is more accurate. His attacking politics undercuts himself and what he is trying to do. This damage is then made worse by not giving any foundational rationale for what he is trying to do in the first place. Talk about giving special interests and “anything goes” politics a free pass…

Colin and Karlo were right: as long as we’re fighting about character issues and other small-minded topics, we have already lost. When we are not talking about a set of ideas, policies, and decisions to be made in an honest way, we let special interests wreck everything (at which point Millennials may as well turn on some John Mayer).

It behooves all of us, including our president, to view politics as a constant, something we cannot ignore. The mixing of various views, backgrounds, and interests is always at work, and, especially now, there will always be a task to pursue. If the 2008 enthusiasm was genuine, if it meant something — if Obama was serious about his call for citizens to step it up — our president and all of us need to re-calibrate our views on politics. Pragmatic idealism just might have a shot then.

Underestimating the Impact of the Youth Vote

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Thomas Goldstein and Thomas Bates, Executive Director of the Washington Bus and Vice President for Civic Engagement at Rock the Vote respectively, penned an op-ed published in today’s Seattle Times.  Goldstein and Bates took aim at the idea that youth’s “low” turnout in midterm elections relative to older age groups ultimately means a smaller impact on the results.

It isn’t exactly news that young people tend to vote at lower rates than older voters. The more interesting story is that even if young people turn out at lower rates, they can dramatically affect the election landscape and outcomes. That happened most visibly in the 2008 presidential election, but also in certain nonpresidential elections closer to home.

The approval of Referendum 71, the election of a young mayor in Tacoma, and two victorious young City Council candidates in Spokane are all evidence of the efficacy of targeting young voters. Moreover, the highest turnout in the state in 2009 was in the 43rd Legislative District, which has the greatest concentration of young voters.

Even with mounting evidence, too many campaigns write off young voters, and this tired habit has made the prophecy of low turnout a self-fulfilling one. It almost reads as a new definition of madness: Time and time again, campaigns don’t invest time and resources into young people, and then are surprised when they don’t mail in their ballots.

[...]

Luckily, we’re doing something about it. Forward-looking organizations and campaigns have tested methods to engage young people and have committed resources to make them reliable voters. And we’re seeing results: For the past three major election cycles — yes, even pre-Obama — the turnout of young people has steadily increased.

We know what works: Make sure young people are registered to vote, give them relevant information in an engaging way, and run campaigns that connect with their values.

The point both are making is that, blessed with size, the effect of even a subtle increase in the Millennial voting rate can be worth a few points in various midterm elections — enough to tip those races in different directions.

As we move forward into the meat of the 21st Century, these younger people, increasingly becoming adults, are going to need to be pursued in a different way than past voters.  This calls for aggressive engagement, complete with the “relevant information” Goldstein and Gates mention above, as well as managing campaigns that reflect youth’s values.

Re-Attracting Young Voters Back to the Obama Coalition

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Matt Bai’s piece in the New York Times Magazine chronicles the emerging tensions between the White House and the Congress as they strategize for the 2010 mid-terms. Within the piece, Bai discusses the generational dynamic at play as the DNC (what is now the Obama-backed OFA) is pushing congressional candidates (against their wills) to make their pitches to voters normally perceived as unreliable.

…The lesson that Plouffe and his operation took away from the dismal 2009 elections is that Obama can act like a matchmaker of sorts, introducing the party’s candidates to new voters and vouching for their intentions, but it’s only going to matter if the candidates themselves embrace the so-called new politics. What that means, practically speaking, is that the White House is urging candidates to divert a fair amount of their time and money — traditionally used for buying TV ads and rallying core constituencies — to courting volunteers and voters who haven’t generally been reliable Democrats.

This is not what members of Congress or their campaign managers are trained to do, and it has created something of a cultural chasm between the White House and the party apparatus. There is a strong generational component here. With some exceptions, Obama’s passion for organizing finds more enthusiasm among candidates closer to the president’s age and newer to politics (candidates like Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado), while older Democrats have a harder time imagining that a bunch of volunteers and a dozen virtual town-hall meetings are going to matter more than labor endorsements and some killer 30-second spots…

[...]

By Democratic Party standards, this is a relatively muted internal disagreement. But it nonetheless points to the emergence of rival schools of thought within the party when it comes to Obama’s importance as a party leader. Some see him as having transformed both the electorate and the nature of campaigning in what could be a lasting and fundamental way, meaning that things are possible now — both in terms of liberal governance and winning elections — that did not seem possible before. Others view 2008 mostly as a cathartic election that had more to do with conditions in the country than with Obama’s peculiar magic, and they don’t think the party should assume that there are millions of new voters out there who can be tapped if you just knock on the right doors. These two worldviews coexist uneasily among the party’s elected officials and candidates, young and old, in every part of the country — sometimes just hours apart.

The congressional camp within the Democratic Party reflects the status quo that continues to claim that new voters — including young voters — don’t vote and are apathetic. What they refuse to understand is that we are civically active; we do vote when we are genuinely engaged in a conversation about issues through a medium relevant to our lifestyles. These labor endorsements and “killer” television ads are almost as boring as network news these days. Instead, we should be investing in the peer-to-peer voting drives and organizing work that have already increased the youth vote for three straight elections. From Mike Connery’s Journalist Cheat Sheet:

Tip #5: If you insist on reporting the same old story that young people vote at a lower rate than the rest of the electorate, then you have an obligation to also inform your readers/viewers/listeners that youth turnout has increased for 3 years straight, and is at its highest level in over a decade. You also have an obligation to note that in 2006 the youth vote swung a number of important federal races, including pushing Democratic candidates Jon Tester, Jim Webb, and Joe Courtney over the top.

Source: Historical voting patterns (pdf), Impact on Races (pdf), Midterm Turnout (pdf).

Tip #6: If you are going to report on low-turnout among young voters, you also have an obligation to note that young people face more barriers to voting than do older voters. We move more frequently, requiring us to re-register sometimes on a yearly basis, on campus we face a lack of voting machines and long lines, and many university towns actively discourage and try to prevent students from voting.

Source: League of Conservation Voters Education Fund

Tip #7: There are simple fixes to the problems outlined in #6 – election day and same-day registration and mail-in voting are two such fixes that can be applied at the state level. These have been proven to bump youth turnout by as much as 14%!!!!! It would be nice if you reported on them occasionally.

Source: CIRCLE

Tip #8: Young voters will participate if they are asked to, particularly by a peer. This is proven. But the system stopped asking long ago by removing resources and manpower away from young voter outreach. Only in recent years have organizations – and a few campaigns – begin to reengage young voters in any serious way. The result is three straight years in which youth turnout increased. In plain terms: young voters are not apathetic. Rather, the system fails to engage them in any meaningful way.

Source: Young Voter Strategies, Voter Mobilization Tactics

Tip #9: Stop reporting on “celebrity activism” as the Rosetta Stone for understanding the youth vote. This is a Boomer and Gen-X construction created for a broadcast TV culture of the 80s and 90s. Today’s young voters are interested in peer-to-peer communication and networked action. From Facebook to on the ground, peer to peer organizing at club, bars, barbershops and apartment canvassing, the most effective, and sustainable developments in youth organizing in the past five years have come from new, grassroots organizations doing peer to peer organizing on the ground or online. Stop reporting on celebrities and start doing the work of talking to and reporting on the activities of these organizations. Good places to start include:

Forward Montana, The Oregon Bus Project, New Era Colorado, Young Democrats of America, and The League of Young Voters.

There are many more, but let’s do this in baby steps. Start with these and we’ll work out way deeper into youth organizing together.

Young voters can be courted; it just takes some courage and genuine effort. The Speaker’s office and legislators like Congressman George Miller (D-CA) have been great on youth policy issues, but in purely electoral terms, the Congressional campaign plan outlined above is disappointing. While OFA doesn’t have a pristine record with young voters, they apparently get it more than many of the old guard congressmen and congresswomen.

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