Tag Archives: public discourse

PMQs: What Americans are Missing

Dispatch Boxes (Lecturns) in the House of Commons Parliament.UK
Dispatch Boxes (Lecterns) in the House of Commons
Parliament.UK

What many in Britain consider a stale feature of their system would be nothing less than a breath of fresh air in ours.

The beginning of a presidential election season in the United States is now greeted by voters with an understandable amount of dread. To be sure, we want to celebrate the idea of elections. No one should be cynical about a system that insists on the consent of the governed. But it is hard to look at the truly awful media spectacle that has unfolded thus far and still be optimistic about our national political life.

Most Americans know that something is seriously amiss, even if it’s not clear how to redeem the campaign process to become what it currently is not: an opportunity for a great national awakening. We have “debates” that are really just joint press conferences, as well as seriously reduced coverage of any candidate that isn’t a poll leader. The reliable Tyndall Report notes that to this point Donald Trump has gotten nearly half the press coverage among all the Republicans seeking their party’s nomination. Moreover, we are saddled with prime-time stories from cable news outlets that constantly verge into “he said-she said” name-calling, as well as too many reporters spending most of their time interviewing other reporters. With the exception of a few serious news organizations, even larger news outlets seem to be averse to boring their audiences with substantive discussions of candidate responses to pressing national and international crises. It’s become so bad that what many in Britain consider to be a stale tradition within their system would be nothing less than a complete breath of fresh air for ours. We could really use something like Parliament’s weekly round of Prime Minister’s Questions (available for viewing at C-SPAN.org).

Every Wednesday Britain’s Prime Minister is obligated to appear in the House of Commons and face questions from leaders of other opposing parties, with the greatest number of queries coming from the leader of the largest faction out of power, and possibly the next Prime Minister. This is the system in most western parliamentary systems, working reasonably well in Australia, Canada and a number of other countries.  What it allows is a lowering of the Constitution-mandated wall between the legislative and executive functions that exists in the United States. Reducing that wall makes possible the kind of discourse that is needed in times when leaders need to be on the hook to find solutions to serious national problems, such as our chronic lateness in passing a federal budget. Frequent and direct debate between the leader of the government and those in opposition has a way of reminding everyone of significant issues in dispute.

Prime ministers generally have a good idea of what they will be asked about. And those doing the asking are not above framing questions to score some easy points against the party that actually has to govern. But Question Time has two huge advantages over American divided government. One is that questions in the House of Commons are not filtered through journalists scrambling to get screen time while also trying to function as surrogates for the other side. All that exists between the “dispatch box” of the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition is a distance of two sword lengths, a prudent design decision made long ago by British parliamentarians. The second is that name-calling and personal attacks won’t cut it in PMQs. It’s easier to call an opponent a liar to a reporter than to the opponent’s face. Direct debate without intermediaries means that questions will have to deal with affairs of state. Discussing anything less looks like evasion.

It’s a weakness in our system that nearly all of the political “debate” that occurs happens in the circus of campaigns, or sequentially through speeches by Presidents and congressional leaders given to their most ardent supports. Except for the yearly trek to Capitol Hill for the State of the Union Address, we simply have no mechanism for our national leaders to publicly argue the merits of their ideas in the presence of each other. The debates that do occur are usually private, when congressional members or their staffers meet with White House officials to iron out compromises. In the process, robust public discourse in the world’s greatest democracy withers. On most great issues the best we get is yet more sequential press conferences and the empty posturing that comes with them.

The problems hinted at here are myriad and complex.  But its hard to not conclude that our governmental system is broken in part because it depends too much on the press–what optimists used to call the “fourth branch of government”–to report the excruciatingly tough issues that those who govern must address.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

The Oppositional Turn

Source: White House photographer Pete Souza
Obama comforting a Hurricane Sandy Victim Source: White House Photographer: Pete Souza

 Almost all of the energy in our public rhetoric is reserved for unmasking what appears to many as the unjustified and self-serving optimism of political elites.

Anyone listening to any past president surely noticed that their public rhetoric was in a distinctly different key. Assuming that Donald Trump is a one-off anomaly, presidents speak in major chords that emphasize positivity, success, praise, enduring values, and always a degree of hope.  It’s the nature of the office to be affirming.  But such rhetoric is increasingly at odds with the sour and minor keys that tend to dominate the ‘rough music’ that comes with significant national and political events. It can hardly be news that irony and suspicion rule our airwaves, talk shows, blogs, news sites, and twitter feeds.

It’s clear to anyone who is listening that we live in an era dominated by oppositional rhetoric. The cultural voices that command the greatest attention are mostly reactive, negative and frequently vitriolic.  Almost of this energy goes into unmasking what appears to so many as the unjustified and self-serving optimism of political and corporate elites.  Increasingly, the negativity of the internet troll looks less like an isolated aberration than a new and durable rhetorical norm.  As a younger student of political communication in the 1970s, I don’t recall seeing the plethora of books asserting presidential conspiracies than can now be found among the “new releases” on the shelves of our public libraries.  And there is, of course, the current President’s daily vitriol.  It’s hardly news that he excels at making nasty comments.

How did we get here?  A bit of this effect is a matter of perception. The Democratic strategist Tony Schwartz noted years ago that in a simple election between two people there are actually four voting choices; a person can vote for or against either candidate.  Schwartz noted that it was sometimes easier to help people discover who they were against. That insight was enough for him to produce devastating anti-Goldwater ads in the 1964 presidential contest.

In addition, the democratization of news gathering—or at least news commentary—means we hear less from official voices and more from dissenters.  Presidents can no longer easily command broadcasters to turn over prime time for an important speech.  The media competition for attention is too great. At the same time, more of our informational sources have merged straight reporting of public events with the entertainment imperative of centering a program on a host who can issue slicing rebukes. We expect our news with the twist of irony that comes easily in The Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, or online outlets like Slate or Salon.com.  As for talk radio: outside of NPR, no one seems to want to sound like a good-government wonk from Minnesota. A surer route to success is to become the audio equivalent of a professional wrestler tossing unworthy adversaries over the ropes.

In actual fact, as psychologist Stephen Pinker has noted in The Better Angels of Our Nature (Penguin, 2012), we are a somewhat more compassionate society than the one our ancestors knew. But it also seems apparent that we have less interest in advocates motivated to find common ground in civil discourse. This splintering of the culture is thus partly the effect of more decentralized and polarized news media, but it’s also caused by a cultural turn away from the communitarian trope that was proudly uttered in defense of significant advances in social welfare legislation following World War II.  The G.I. Bill, Social Security, and the civil rights acts of the mid-1960s were milestones as enactments of this value, which could be summarized as broad support to use the political resources of the nation for the benefit of all. In this common pre-Reagan belief, government was the solution, not the problem.

The challenge posed by the newer turn toward a more atomized and suspicious culture is whether we and other western democracies can maintain a sense of shared national destiny.  With a fragmented nation now served by fragmented media, finding what unites us is more difficult. That search is compounded by the fact that we no longer pay much attention to Presidents, even when they yearned to be the poets of our national spirit.