More heat than light

Reducing funding for federal programs is not a moral issue.

During the third Kennedy/Nixon debate in 1960, reporter Roscoe Drummond noted that John Kennedy’s supporters were describing Richard Nixon as the Ku Klux Klan candidate, based on an endorsement of Nixon by a Klan leader. Drummond said, “What I would like to ask, Senator Kennedy, is—what is the purpose of this sort of thing?”

We might well ask the same kind of question about much of what we hear in our public dialogue today. Last week, we criticized U.S. Rep. James Gibbons for attacking members of the public with whom he disagreed as “communists” and Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick for attacking Latino Americans as unpatriotic.

This sort of thing is bipartisan as shown in the description by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, of the Bush budget. He told the New York Times, “This document is immoral for what it does to those who can’t defend themselves.”

This administration has done much that is immoral, such as lying the nation into a war and then refusing to admit it. But reducing funding for federal programs is not that kind of issue. It is possible to be opposed to some forms of public assistance without being evil or immoral. Sen. Reid does those who oppose the Bush administration no favors by describing these public policy disagreements as questions of good versus evil.

Public debate needs to be sharper and more pointed, but that is very different from the kind of ad hominem attacks that now corrode debate.

Journalism, particularly broadcast journalism, is partly to blame for this deterioration of dialogue. Most television news reports are so brief that, according to studies, public officials’ positions are usually represented by sound bites less than 10 seconds in length. Officials have been forced to talk in oversimplified bites in order to get heard at all.

The public, too, shares blame. During the 2004 presidential campaign, when George Bush spoke in Reno, a protester held a large “BUSH” sign on which the “S” was a swastika. On C Street in Virginia City during that campaign, a resident had a 6-foot-tall sign in his yard reading, “KERRY IS A SOCIALIST PIG.”

Stating a position in extreme terms forces the other side to do the same, and we can never know what effect such overstatement will have on weak minds. After an unstable man tried to kill President Jackson in 1835, the New York Herald said, “We cannot forget the execrations we have heard yelled out in our streets against Andrew Jackson; we cannot forget the language which has been used by the Bank-Tory press concerning him.”

There is a saying that the fight for progress is not a battle between good and evil, but between differing views of good. In 1960, the Kennedy Klan statements were at issue because they sharply departed from what was then a fairly decent public dialogue. Today such statements wouldn’t even be considered unusual, and we are poorer for it. We are also more poorly governed because of it.