My son Sam was an excellent high school debater. He took whatever issue and whatever side he was assigned and constructed the obvious arguments with clarity and persuasive force. He delivered them in a finely tuned vocabulary backed by verbal passion.
My daughter Mae was even better. She won the state championship as “Scary Girl” because she added to Sam’s abilities, which she admiringly copied, a steely glare of determination that could unnerve her peers.
The practice they got in these skills has proven invaluable in their later lives. They, and we, are indebted to the teacher who led the debate team, Joan Macri, because she loved to teach. (That’s how you honor a teacher.)
I went to some of their debate meets. I enjoyed watching my children perform, but I found the arguments on all sides unsatisfying. I didn’t get educated, because that was not the purpose. My children trained in the creation of an arbitrary argument, without any necessary conviction that it was right. Good training to be a courtroom lawyer, where the job is to take the side of whoever hires you, and use a command of language to construct the most one-sided case possible.
Great training to be a politician. Every idea that politicians come up with, every policy they advocate, is the greatest ever. Every suggestion of the other party would be a disaster. Until they change their minds, and then whatever they used to believe is now impossibly stupid and obviously dangerous. In sports, trash-talking is an art form, but even boxers are much less personally abusive of their opponents than American politicians. The worst aspects of high school debate characterize much of our national political discourse.
Our discussion of national health is just one flagrant example. You won’t get an education about the health and health care of America by listening to politicians in or outside of Washington, because both sides are more interested in scoring political points than in helping us understand a complex issue.
Conservatives at the Heritage Foundation came up with a detailed plan for transforming health insurance. The Republican Governor of Massachusetts, in cooperation with a Democratic legislature, managed to transform that plan into law in 2006. He insisted on a key element: that every person in Massachusetts must sign up for the insurance, in order to keep costs reasonable for everybody. There would be a tax penalty for those who refused.
But when those same principles were used by Democrats to create the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010 at the federal level, that Governor, Mitt Romney, said it was all wrong. He won’t talk about why he made it his greatest achievement 6 years ago. High ranking Republicans have been unanimous that it is not merely bad policy, but unconstitutional and un-American. It must be repealed.
Democratic debaters about health care tirelessly extol Obamacare’s virtues, which are mostly theoretical, because most of the Act has not yet come into existence. They don’t talk about Massachusetts either. In Massachusetts in 2009, only 1% of taxpayers had not purchased affordable insurance and thus had to pay an income tax penalty of a few hundred dollars. Massachusetts has the highest proportion of the population with health insurance, 98% in 2010, compared to 83% nationwide. Years after it began, the most significant experiment with a state-run health insurance system in our history, in which everyone must be enrolled, is outside the party debates, and we are gasping for some real information about how it might work at the national level.
The speeches and the ads and the PACs that politicians create seek to win our votes, not to educate us. They want us to listen to them, but they won’t listen to us. Americans are right in the middle on health care: in the latest Pew Research Center poll in June, 43% approved of the Affordable Care Act, and 48% disapproved. Even the Supreme Court, mostly appointed by conservative Presidents, split down the middle in determining Obamacare constitutional.
Half of Americans are not wrong. It’s the politicians who refuse to treat us as participants in the national debate who are wrong.
The sorry state of political discourse may be why so many Americans don’t know even the basic facts about the candidates. In a Pew Center poll last month, barely half of registered voters knew which candidate is anti-abortion. One third did not know that Obama would raise taxes on the rich and that Romney opposes gay marriage. Less than half of Americans know that Obama is a Christian. The ignorance is greatest among younger voters and those who never went to college.
The one-sided debating points of Republicans and Democrats whip up emotions without increasing our knowledge. Each side seeks to mangle the other side’s message. In the middle sits the American voter, wishing for enlightenment.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 16, 2012