Voting pressure, information overload

Thursday, March 25, 2010

David Plouffe, Barack Obama's campaign manager, cranked up the e-mail list last week urging registered participants to call U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson's office (and others across the country) to vote for the health care bill.

Emerson has been a no vote, but think how many calls were cranked up to Democratic congressmen on the fence.

For only the second time in his career, Rush Limbaugh publicized the congressional phone numbers, which generated a "no" vote response that overloaded the system.

The Obama e-mail stated:

"Your representative needs to know that a vote against reform is a vote to give insurance companies free rein to jack up premiums, drop coverage when people get sick, and make life-and-death decisions for millions of Americans. There's still time for your representatives to put people above partisanship and support reform -- so please call right away."

The following excerpts from a column in USA Today last week addresses a problem that I and too many have. That's the problem of reading to be informed but being less likely to take action than I did when I was younger and less informed.

Of course, today I'm more experienced and more knowledgeable on both sides of many issues. And like many, I'm become more concerned about many trends in the U.S.

Read the following and think about it.

Excerpt from a column by Philip Meyer: A dysfunctional Congress? Maybe that's not the problem. Consider the possibility that it is a dysfunctional electorate that keeps anything from happening in Washington.

We need a public that pays attention and is willing to act on its information. Without it, the congressional gridlock we've been seeing all year has no cure.

What also matters is whether information brings us together or divides us. If a liberal cocoons himself in the writings of Paul Krugman, the sarcasm of Keith Olbermann and the rants of The Huffington Post, has he become more enlightened, or simply hardened? If a conservative spends an hour with Sean Hannity, absorbs the prose of Charles Krauthammer and camps out at The Weekly Standard, does she truly have a better understanding of "ObamaCare," for instance?

Washington reporters share some of the blame. They do a fine job of reporting all the detailed twists and turns in the fights between the Democratic majority and the Republican minority. They are not so good at showing the big picture and motivating us to act.

Paul Lazarsfeld, the great sociologist who died in 1976, co-authored an article naming this problem more than half a century ago. Too much information, he said, can lead to "narcotizing dysfunction."

In other words, a voting public besieged by a plethora of details and inside baseball will just feel helpless and apathetic. We might know a lot, and that makes us feel good, but we let knowledge become a substitute for action.

The media world that concerned Lazarsfeld was very different from today's. Fewer than 1 percent of households had television. Still, between radio and print, there was a flood of information. The average citizen, Lazarsfeld said in 1948, took "his reading and listening thinking as a vicarious performance. He comes to mistake knowing about problems of the day for doing something about them.

"His social conscience remains spotlessly clean. He is concerned. ... He is informed. And he has all sorts of ideas as to what should be done.

"But ... after he has listened to his favored radio programs and after he has read his second newspaper of the day, it is really time for bed."

Today, with many more channels of information, including cable TV, Twitter, Facebook and the multitude of blogs, we are even more inundated with potentially narcotizing information. But we're not any smarter. The level of political knowledge in the USA has been fairly stable over time.

However, since Lazarsfeld's day, and especially since about 1990, when Tim Berners-Lee decided to call the thing he had invented the World Wide Web, we have been consuming a different kind of media content. It is more specialized. There is less attention paid to areas of common ground where people of different views can try to understand one another. That lack of a media commons makes representative government a lot harder. When there is no interest in trying to learn and understand the views of others, there can be no deliberation. We fall back on a simple approve-disapprove method of voting. When things go badly, we just throw the rascals out.

Hating America: If Fidel Castro or anyone else did a tenth as much good as the U.S. does abroad, you can bet they'd take credit for it. Strangely, however, the U.S. doesn't. It aids Haiti but refused to fly the American flag.

It is a sorry spectacle to see the Joint Task Force-Haiti -- the international rescue operation in that earthquake-ravaged country -- flying the flags of France, Cuba, Croatia, Mexico and every other nation that sends Haiti a Band-Aid, while the United States, like some shamed delinquent in a corner, flies none.

"We are not here as an occupation force but as an international partner committed to supporting the government of Haiti on the road to recovery," a statement by the U.S. Government's Haiti Joint Information Center Read, explaining the flag's absence.

It's an uneven partnership, to say the least: As of last month, U.S. taxpayers shelled out $190 million in aid, far more than any other nation, plus a 12,000-troop rescue operation, a hospital ship full of free medical care and even haven in the U.S. for some.

What's more, as U.S. troops took on the dirtiest and most dangerous parts of the rescue, Haitians cheered them in the streets and hung ragged posters expressing their gratitude.

But against this evidence of a warm reception, there's somehow no place for a U.S. flag to fly. According to a State Department spokesman, the U.S. took down its flag at the Port-au-Prince airport after Jean-Max Bellerive -- the petty, leftist prime minister of Haiti -- claimed it represented "occupation."

Instead of telling him the flag represents the U.S. aid effort and if the flag goes, so will our aid, the Obama administration caved.

Bellerive's canard has interesting roots.

It was first made by Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, who saw all the goodwill U.S. aid was bringing to Haiti -- in contrast to his own broken promises there. Chavez yelled that America's real aim was occupation-and, insane even for him, claimed the U.S. actually caused the quake!

As for Bellerive, he has reasons of his own to hate the U.S. flag. His corrupt government was completely unprepared for the Jan. 12 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, or for any other disaster, for that matter. For him, the U.S. flag can only remind Haitians of how things are in his country -- and how much better they could be.

What's unfortunate is that the Obama administration paid no heed to these dynamics. In acquiescing to Bellerive, it shortchanges U.S. generosity, props up a corrupt government and serves the interests of our enemies in the hemisphere, who want Old Glory gone from the region for good.

The U.S. deserves better than that and should fly the flag proudly.

-- Investors Business Daily

Gary Rust is chairman of Rust Communications.

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