Guest column by Donna Brazile.
The topic for our discussion is “What Informed Voters Need to Know.” The topic itself is informative. It presumes that there are some voters who are — and will remain — uninformed. It presumes that some knowledge — some set of facts — is essential to being — or becoming — an informed voter. It thus, by implication, privileges some form of “knowing.” And finally, it presumes that voters, having acquired the knowledge necessary to be classified as “informed,” will vote based on how that knowledge interacts with their principles and philosophies, and not on something else — say, who has the broader smile or the grayer hair. Or whose supporters have been able to out-buy and out-shout the opposition.
I think the first presumption, that some voters are and will remain uninformed, is a fair one. Unfortunately. Obviously, one of our goals at this institution is to reduce that number as far as possible. But let’s consider for a moment why voters — so many voters — remain uninformed. After all, this is the Information Age. Though print versions of newspapers may be dwindling, newspapers themselves are doing OK on the Internet. TV options have mushroomed — perhaps that’s not the best word — radio has gone in the last 50 years from almost all music with some news to at least an even split between entertainment and talk. And even the entertainment includes sports journalism. Blogs, websites, Google, Twitter, Facebook — we have more information than we know what to do with. If information were food, everyone would have a three-course gourmet feast at every meal.
Some might argue that the glut of information creates overload and indifference, leading to uninformed voters. That’s probably true, in part. Of equal importance, though, is a sense of irrelevance. The information just doesn’t matter. If the media don’t distinguish between Justin Bieber’s latest haircut and the Affordable Care Act, why should the voters find any of the information relevant or meaningful?
That brings me to the second presumption: that there exists a body of knowledge or a set of facts that is necessary, and perhaps sufficient, to make a voter “informed.” Now, it’s an axiom of rhetoric and politics that if you can’t agree on the facts, you can’t debate their value, their meaning or what should be done with them. Or as former U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.“ Indeed, citizenship depends on not only having a common history, but having a consensus about what that history is.
We again have to look at the media, which are at the very least the filters of facts, and in many cases the arbiters of facts. Last week, the Supreme Court upheld “Obamacare.” How many Americans know its official name — the Affordable Care Act? How many know what’s in it? Here’s an interesting fact: For a few years, the polls have been consistent: Americans don’t like Obamacare, but they like very much what’s in it. How is that possible? I’ll tell you: When the media substitute spin and partisan wish-fulfillment for facts, voters become uninformed and turned-off.
If it sounds like I’m saying voters become informed despite, not because of, the media, you’re right. I’d like to list some of the facts that I think are relevant, knowledge a voter needs to be informed. In 2008, this country was in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. How to handle it? President Obama proposed a stimulus — vehemently opposed by Republicans, deemed too small by eminent economists like Paul Krugman. What was the result? Here’s another fact: Austerity and firing public-sector workers has lengthened the recession and retarded recovery.
I already mentioned health care reform. Whatever one feels about the Affordable Care Act, was it responsible for the media to allow some claims to go unchallenged?
Let’s look at some of the accomplishments of the Obama administration: the auto industry bailout, a restructured student loan program, mortgage refinancing, getting U.S. troops out of Iraq, cash-for-clunkers, lower drug costs for seniors, expanded SCHIP for children, putting the U.S. in compliance with the Geneva no-torture policy, using U.S. influence — but not troops — to remove Qaddafi, killing Osama bin Laden and so much more. Let’s not forget his executive order allowing immigrant children a path to citizenship. He also held the first Passover Seder at the White House.
An informed voter needs to know those facts. He or she can choose to dislike the reasoning or effect, but what President Obama has accomplished should not be in dispute.
That brings me to the third presumption of our topic: that voters, having become informed, will vote based on how they read that information. That doesn’t mean that every informed voter will vote for President Obama — though that would be nice. But an informed voter can decide that he or she disagrees with the President’s policies, or even one of them. George Will is a friend of mine, and I think a pretty reasonable and informed fellow. We’re not going to agree on what the facts mean or what policy they should lead to.
But we will agree on the facts.
People vote their feelings, their experiences, their beliefs. And that’s OK. People also vote what they think is in their pocketbook, even when the facts say otherwise.
We need to recognize, though, that our feelings and beliefs do not have to be in conflict or contradict the facts — what we should know and, as our topic says, what we need to know. But if that’s going to happen, if we’re going to be informed voters, then two things must happen. Voters have to become active participants in their information. They have to become critical thinkers, and they also have to hold the media accountable for their laziness and biases. And the media must make investigative journalism — research and reason — their trademark.
The media are more distrusted than Congress. That has to change. For the first thing informed voters need to know is that they can trust the sources of their information.
Brazile is a Democratic strategist and founder and managing director of Brazile & Associates.