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Reason and Knowledge Have Left the Room: We have met the enemy and he is us (Commentary)

Aug 26th, 2016 | By | Category: Features, Lead Article

This article appeared four years ago in EJ.  We have re-posted it because of its enduring relevance.


Talk radio.  Network TV.  Cable news channels.  On-line blogs and news. Newspapers and magazines.  We, as Americans, are privileged to have access to such a wide variety of information sources to inform us about issues concerning our civic lives and our elected officials.  Despite the availability of these outlets, we remain poorly informed and are unable to develop truly reasoned opinions about public policy and preferences for candidates for public office.

It is not because there is not enormous content available.  It is also not because we are not consuming this content.  It is because of what that content is and it is because of what we demand as content and it is because of how public officials use these various media that present that content.

The most important issues that concern us an electorate are incredibly complex and require significant attention to understand.  Sound bites and simple ideological statements will not suffice.  Health care, the economy, and international relations are the most important public matters of our time.  I would contend that the majority of us are ill-informed and unable to make any reasoned judgment on these matters and, concomitantly, to develop a preference for candidates with respect to these matters.  Take health care and the debate among the presidential candidates over the Affordable Care Act.  A reasoned judgment would require at least marginal knowledge of how Medicare and Medicaid are currently structured, how providers are paid, the role of managed care in each, the role of the public-private administration of care in each, the proportion of all medical expenditures paid for out of public funds through these two programs, the role of end-stage renal disease in Medicare costs, the role of long-term care in Medicaid costs.  A reasoned judgment would also require knowledge of how normal market functions are absent in the health care delivery system.  A reasoned judgment would also require knowledge of the actual cost of private insurance to the consumer.  A reasoned judgment would also require knowledge of the role of primary care in health outcomes and the cost of care at the national level.  A reasoned judgment would also require knowledge of how decisions are currently made concerning what will be paid by insurers………and so on and so forth.  Yet, it is likely that most of us are basing our positions on this matter by our affinity for one of two ideological statements: “The market is more efficient and we don’t want government bureaucrats telling us what health care we can have.” or ‘We need to provide availability of health care to everyone.”

In this national election year, we have been exposed to thousands of hours of content covering the primary and general elections and the issues that define them.  Among those thousands of hours, very few have been devoted to a reasoned analysis of these issues.  Rather, we have been educated on red and blue states, endless analysis of ephemeral horse races in the primaries and transient scores in the general election, hours of analysis of campaign strategies, and pre and post game analyses.  We are all experts on campaign strategies and the score of the game.  Very few of us are adequately knowledgeable about the issues that the election is about.  Despite the periodic offering of  patronizing statements by candidates and the media that the American electorate knows best, such an assertion is debatable.  Given the structural resources we have to gain this information, it is not unreasonable to claim that reason and knowledge have left the room.

Last night was the first of three presidential debates. As debates go, this one scored pretty well for content.  Although, the misleading comments and partial facts professed during the evening cannot be considered complete and must be consumed guardedly.  What is most telling about last night’s adventure was the post-debate media coverage.  Scanning through broadcast network and cable coverage, one could not blame a viewer thinking that they were watching the NFL today.  Almost categorically, commentary was about who won and by how much and how this might affect the rest of their season.   Save PBS’s coverage of the event, little or no analysis was about the accuracy of the content offered in the debate.  Ostensibly, these debates are held so the electorate can learn more about the candidates and their positions and plans, not about if they can convert the extra point.

If we have met the enemy and he is us; who is “us”.  “Us” is threefold.  First, it is the candidates who inevitably score low on transparency, details, and information.  Second, it is the media who would rather be sports analysts than purveyors of useful information by a free press.  Finally, it is us, the American public, who would rather watch a football game than be educated about important issues.

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  1. Cogent analysis, as always.

    And if voters choose not to become better informed, parties exploit the situation for their own advantage. In “A Theory of Political Parties: Groups, Policy Demands and Nominations in American Politics,” Bawn et al (2012) argue that group-centric parties do not have to be particularly responsive to citizen preferences; they “mainly push their own agendas and aim to get voters to go along.”

    A quibble about the media’s role. Certainly the media’s coverage of issues can be spotty, but credible outlets such as the NYT and CNN keep track of what the candidates are saying and highlight their inaccuracies. The growth of blogs (and even sites such as EJ) means that the public can find dispassionate sources for discussion of the intricacies of health care reform and other policies. At a local level, the Patriot-News has been especially good at covering Harrisburg’s fiscal crisis–interested citizens can, if they are interested, read about the incinerator debacle in excruciating detail.

    The question is, will enough citizens find it a good use of their time to seek out such information (when various other activities clamor for their attention)? Confirmation bias plays a role too. Voters may tend to favor information that confirms their beliefs–which explains the popularity of Fox News and MSNBC with certain viewers.

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