Sunday, June 24, 2012

Vague & Vacuous

I was out running errands the other day and while on the way back to my car I noticed a political bumper sticker. It was for some candidate for Congress, but what grabbed my attention was the tagline.

"Less Government. More Prosperity."

My first thought was that it was obviously a Republican. My second was that this was just the kind of stupid drivel that we've come to expect from our elections. Fourth grade level, useless bullet points that grab voters' attention, yet are absolutely without substance.

"Less Government" is one of those lines that is a conservative staple. It fits the narrative that the government, especially the federal government, is only good at wasting money. Like most catchy political phrases, it strikes its target audience as clear and concise, yet is actually uselessly vague. What the hell does that phrase even mean, anyway? What do you want less of? It's real easy to moan about the evils of government and how bad it is, but when you start to really pin things down, it becomes surprisingly complicated. Well, we can't get rid of the military. If nothing else, it's one of the few categories where America still holds the top spot! Not to mention that it's undeniable that we all "support the troops." Not enough to take care of them when they come home, sometimes badly wounded, or to stop sending them off for deployment after deployment in locations most Americans couldn't care less about, but we'll elbow each other in the ribs to buy them a beer! And, of course, politicians can't call for a reduction without risking being labeled as weak. So the Pentagon is safe.

How about those fascists at the EPA or FDA, with their fixation on keeping our food, air and water at least reasonably safe? I think we can all agree that we need less testing of new drugs or regulations on what chemicals can be dumped in our rivers, right? Anyone? Okay, hmmm. I got it, Medicare! Do we really want to waste money on healthcare for the elderly? They've been here a while, isn't it time to spend on ourselves instead? Okay, maybe not. National Park Service, maybe? They're all just tree hugging socialists, anyway. Then again, it might be nice to have a few areas that can't be used for mining, shopping malls or another Marriott. I guess "less government" isn't so clear a dictate when looked at in detail.

What about "More Prosperity"? Now that is something we can agree on, eh? Hell, yes! I demand more prosperity! It's time we marched out there and let our politicians know that we won't stand for the current level of prosperity any longer. They just need to fix that. You know, just . . . you know, get out there and . . .  fix it! How? Uh, well . . . (crickets chirp happily in the distance). To be blunt, "more prosperity" is about as ignorant as McCain's "Country First" slogan from '08. As if anyone ever called for country second or less prosperity! Slogans like this should be taken almost as seriously as those ads for magic diet pills that melt the fat right off while you watch TV. And yet, there they are, plastered everywhere as if they were universal truths.

But what is so infuriating is that empty platitudes like these actually seem to work! Come on people, wake up. Our political system has degenerated to the point where our politicians are beginning to feel comfortable uttering easily disprovable, bald faced lies on national television. Not just exaggerating or stretching things, but actually declaring in bold language the political equivalent of 2+2=5! And they get uproarious applause. Why? Because they are telling their supporters exactly what they want to hear. And politicians have learned that reinforcing our own prejudices, misconceptions and fears is way easier and more effective than telling the truth.  The truth can be inconvenient and data has an annoying habit of not fitting a canned narrative, but lies fit every single time.

Much of the blame for this state of affairs lays at the feet of the media. In the olden days of TV news, it was just the three major networks and their news departments were not there to make money. Actually they weren't expected to be profitable. They were more in the way of a public service. Now we have news and comment oozing out of every TV, newspaper, computer, tablet and phone without end, but it's all about selling ad space. It's all about entertainment and making the viewers feel better about themselves so they'll buy more product. Each political party picks their preferred outlets and pundits, then ignores everyone else. A grand echo chamber, where nobody is asked tough questions because everyone involved is on the same team. If not politically so, then at least they are teamed up in feeding their viewers acceptable ideas that won't upset them. Instead of pointing out the facts, allowing us to decide based on objective data, it's about keeping the viewers happy and thus the sponsors happy. We can't even agree on the basic facts any more, so I can't imagine how we can ever work together to solve the very real and pressing problems we face.

The bottom line is that we aren't really as far apart as it usually seems. If we could dispense with the easy slogans and let go of our reflexive hatred, I think Americans of all views could make this work. But we are not just fighting our own habitual responses. It's also a struggle against all the forces out there that benefit from the conflict. The media that is trying to sell ad space. Those in positions of influence who are more focused on their own personal or business success rather than the overall success of the nation. And also the politicians whose overriding concern is reelection and keeping their donors happy. What's the solution? Question those you support as well as those you oppose. Listen to both sides, even when you don't want to. If someone you like says something that seems at all odd, look into it. Even if you generally trust a certain source of information, that doesn't mean they are always right or that they don't have an agenda. The one way we can pull out of this partisan nose-dive is for people on both sides to call out the lunacy in their own party. Stupid is still stupid, no matter who says it or what channel it's on.

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