At High Cost — Our Lack of Civil Debate

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Image by Giacomo Zanni from Pixabay

The 2008 memorial mass for conservative writer/pundit William F. Buckley, Jr. served as a requiem for intelligent political debate in America.  Foes from “Firing Line,” who became Buckley buddies, were present, including late-in-life friend Sen. George McGovern. Outspoken atheist writer Christopher Hitchens, critic of Mother Theresa, belted out traditional hymns.

Students of race in America still listen to Buckley’s mid-1960s debate with James Baldwin. Local activists of the Vietnam War era can recall Buckley’s face off with University of Washington professor Giovanni Costigan. Alas, turn on your radio or TV these days, or check the Internet, you are likely to hear just one side of every issue, endlessly repeated. Audiences inhabit what Media Matters describes as an “impermeable bubble” from which nobody escapes to hear the other side or correction of lies.

The result: Absolute nonsense fills the airwaves, such as last week’s Fox-fostered charge that President Biden wants to curtail us from eating hamburgers, or the lie that refugee kids at the Mexican border had been supplied copies of Vice President Harris’ children’s book. Two “news” outlets, Newsmax and One America News Network, brought down grief on Dominion Voting Systems by spreading the baseless allegation that an executive rigged voting machines to defeat President Trump.

The absence of direct, in-person pushback is allowing the poison of racism to re-inject itself into the nation’s bloodstream. Witness, last week, top-rated Fox News host Tucker Carlson accusing Democrats of using immigrants to replace America’s voting base. “Every time they import a new voter, I become disenfranchised as an existing voter,” said he. “I have less political power because they are importing a brand-new electorate.”

Tucker Carlson once had to defend himself on CNN’s Crossfire. No more. The man’s screeds against immigrants, supposedly making America “dirtier,” sound like what the Know Nothings of the 1840s said about the Irish.  The impact does not serve the health of our body politic. Nor, in the current crisis, has it served the health of bodies — considering a Fox medical expert’s early comparison of the coronavirus to “the flu” and lately the relentless demonization of Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“[The] information warfare threat to the United States is different from past threats, and it has the potential to destroy reason and reality as a basis for societal discourse, replacing them with rage and fantasy,” Dr. Herb Lin of the Hoover Institution told a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee (chaired by Washington Rep. Adam Smith) last week.  It makes, he said, for “perpetual civil war” and “political extremism.”

Disagreement does not require going to war.  Intense debates in Congress during the 1980s centered on the Reagan Administration’s aid to Nicaragua’s Contra rebels.  On the House floor, like two dreadnaughts, Republican Rep. Henry Hyde (pro) and Democratic Rep. Tom Foley (con) would trade verbal broadsides.  The debate over, the two big Irishmen would leave the floor arm-in-arm.  From opposite sides of the political fence, Foley and Hyde later joined the legal challenge to Washington’s term limit initiative for federal officeholders.

The tenor now is to attack, ridicule society’s compromises, make it personal, and accuse the other side of seeking to destroy America.  Onetime House Speaker Newt Gingrich is ceaselessly vicious on right-wing media.  Rudy Giuliani responds to prosecutors’ investigations of his dirty tricks by doubling down on Hunter Biden.

Encouraging the January 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection with his famous clenched-fist salute has not lowered but raised the profile of Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley. By contrast, the Republicans’ 2012 presidential nominee, Sen. Mitt Romney, was loudly booed, called a “traitor” and a “communist” when he tried to speak Saturday to the Utah Republican Convention.  A resolution to censure Romney was narrowly defeated. Nowadays, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cannot even get agreement on creation of a bipartisan panel to investigate the January 6 mob invasion of the U.S. Capitol.

Fox News holds its audience in a bubble, but its viewers have locked in the network.  They expect nothing less than, and nothing but, an aggressive party line.  No disagreement.  One conjured-up story after another to provoke grievance against universities, Black Lives Matter, Oscar-winning actors, liberal politicians, and – lately – information technology corporations. “Fox is an identity, almost a way of life,” Brian Stelter wrote in his 2020 book: Hoax: Fox News and the distortion of truth.

The “impermeable bubble” does not apply exclusively to the political right.  The emergence of Seattle as a left-dominated city has curtailed debate and narrowed the allowable range of options to left and far left.  The Stranger defines what is permissible. Progressive business leaders get depicted as plutocrats.  When Kshama Sawant’s mob is deployed, the booing and hissing at City Council meetings has come to resemble the Utah Republican Convention. The left is not accustomed to disagreement and impatient with it.

The absence of civil debate has cost this country. An example:  A few years back, when Slade Gorton’s political tribe honored him at the Westin, former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, flew out from D.C. Democrat Gorelick poked fun at and paid tribute to Republican Gorton. The two served productively on the 9/11 Commission and played a considerable role in the thoroughness and lucidity of its final report.

That said, we still have holdouts for serious debate. CityClub has insisted that candidates for statewide public office debate, albeit with short answers. We had a gubernatorial debate in 2020 that revealed to all the lack of qualification and extremism of gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp. On KIRO-FM, Dave Ross as moderator has shown a let-’em-play style. We need more candles in this darkness.

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I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

1 COMMENT

  1. Joel, you are right about many things but I beg to differ that The Stranger sets the terms of debate in Seattle — and I say this is a freelance writer who contributes to The Stranger’s pages. Since they stopped printing over a year ago, I believe the paper has lost influence locally. And to not even mention the Seattle Times? Whatever your view of their editorial pages, they remain the paper of record with the largest local media reach for print.

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