A common theme in some science fiction tales, such as Carl Sagan’s Contact, was based on the fearful premise that aliens would gain their first inklings of human society from our radio and television signals leaking out into the cosmos. Whether they caught a glimpse of early news reels of Hitler’s rallies or Ricky and Lucy arguing over burnt toast, the impression uniformly failed to put our best foot forward. Taking a more local view, were one to know nothing of American government beyond CSPAN’s coverage of the House floor, the gab festivals on MSNBC and Fox, or coverage of this summer’s town hall meetings, you’d be tempted to think we were the least civil society imaginable.
The latest incarnation of shouting in the public square came in the form of Representative Alan Grayson (D-Florida). The congressman took time out of his busy day to assemble helpful charts and posters on the House floor informing us that the entire Republican caucus wants all of the sick people in the United States to expire in an expedient fashion to save money. While it falls well short of the fisticuffs which regularly take place in the legislatures of certain Asian and South American nations, the presentation smacked of a lack of class and subtlety.
Still, the entire affair might have passed without notice were it not for the curious response of the chamber’s majority leadership. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi moved quickly to squelch any calls for an official apology from Grayson, claiming that such scuffling in the mud would represent a “distraction” from the more pressing matters at hand. And an admirable response it would have been, had she not first made the same claim about Joe Wilson’s “you lie” outburst, but then allowed a resolution of censure to move forward.
It hasn’t always been this way in the halls of Congress, though. During the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings, there were actually calls for the indictment of Army legal representative Joseph Nye Welch for saying, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” Today, such a question would fail to elicit much more than yawns.
And what of the rowdy, disruptive behavior on display at town halls across the nation this summer? They featured crowds packed to the rafters, peppered with accusations of communist tendencies and snarling supporters noshing on the fingers of protestors. But this is also a fairly recent development, and likely not indicative of the nation at large.
I’ve been attending these public forums for many years, and legislators have traditionally had trouble filling a space the size of a high school gymnasium. To be sure, there were heated moments at times, but they frequently dealt with local, personal problems which voters wished to bring to the attention of their representatives.
The truly deceptive part of this traveling media circus is the number of people involved. For those of us who constantly steep ourselves in the ebb and flow of the political news cycle, such conversations may seem like the single focus of the nation. But what we often fail to realize is precisely how small of an audience we are talking about.
During last year’s presidential campaign — arguably the peak of national interest in our government — Harris Polling revealed that a solid majority (56%) of Americans had never once read a political blog. Of the 22% who definitely had, many of them were either exposed to such writing “infrequently” or found themselves there by accident following a Google search. While much of the nation is expanding their use of and dependence on the internet, the vast majority simply are not interested enough in political debate to seek out the wild eyed opinions of the bloggers.
In television we find similar results. Some critics, alarmed by recent trends toward immoderate behavior, point to the winners and losers in the political chat ratings wars. Shouters such as Ed Schultz, Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow, and Rush Limbaugh battle it out for audience share and their respective supporters love to crow about any perceived victory in the standings. But the fact remains that not one of them regularly draws an audience anywhere near the number of people who tuned in for an episode of Friends, even when Ross still had that stupid monkey living in his apartment.
So how many people are truly getting all “wee-weed” up in the political arena? In our nation of roughly 300 million people, a little over 122 million bothered to show up and vote in last fall’s historic election. During an off year, that number frequently plummets to something closer to a quarter of the population. And of those, on site interviews regularly feature large numbers of voters who can’t even name both candidates in any given race except the presidential contenders.
Those town halls which fill the television screens on endless gab festivals draw “hundreds of supporters and opponents.” Hundreds! Of course, congressional districts in America have, on average, roughly 700,000 people each.
As much as it may pain political junkies to admit it, we’re talking about a vanishingly small percentage of the populace here. A significant portion of our nation still adheres to olden principles of not discussing divisive subjects such as politics or religion over dinner. If you step away from your computers and your circle of “blog friends” and wander the streets of your home town, you are still likely to find a far more civil, friendly society thriving in America. People are concerned, but they mostly worry about having or finding a job and whether or not they will be able to take their family on vacation this year. They largely prefer to ignore their government as much as possible, hoping it will simply keep the trains running on time and not cause them any more discomfort than absolutely necessary.
Civil society is far from dead, and the screaming we regularly hear in the politically oriented media is simply the extreme but logical product of a desire for ratings and attention. The worst behavior is what we regularly see because the bloggers eat it up and the talking heads want a larger audience. Sadly, this hostility and its proven track record of results is infecting Congress as well. Rude and violent behavior sells well, but it’s still the exception rather than the rule. Let’s just hope that the aliens are watching Dancing With the Stars and not listening to Hugh Hewitt.