Laws and Sausages
You may be familiar with a wonderful old quote, traditionally attributed to the German “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck but most likely penned by American lawyer-poet John Godfrey Saxe, which in its original form reads as follow: “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” While I am all in favor of transparency in government, I think we’ve gone quite a bit too far with our current approach to media coverage of the legislative process. If we are not careful, we may turn off an entire generation of voters from caring about the proper functioning of our government, which would be very dangerous for the future of our representative democracy.
I thought of this recently while listening in the car to one of my regular radio programs. I got so annoyed (there is no other word for it) that I turned the radio off -- firmly, deliberately, physically and possibly even emotionally. I had simply had enough. All I wanted was relevant information and, only secondarily, some informed perspective on matters of importance for me, my family, my country and the world. What I got instead was a strident, patchwork stream of opinion, bias, posturing and partisanship. And the sober realization that this is not an environment conducive to “the art of compromise,” “working things out” and “getting things done.”
How in the world do we expect to make any progress in addressing the critical issues of our day by publicly airing our disagreements and attacking the motives of those with whom we disagree? I’m not suggesting bringing back the old “smoke filled room” approach, but the current practice simply is not working. In fact, it has the potential to make political compromise and practical give-and-take impossible by backing legislators into a corner.
Case in point. I had the chance recently to speak informally with a senior member of our Congressional delegation whom I like and respect personally but with whom I do not see eye-to-eye politically. I expressed my personal view that his party had made a tactical error by forcing exercise of the “nuclear option” over the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and that their hand might have been forced by less-than-objective media coverage and the shaping of public opinion thereby. I offered my opinion that the American public impatiently wants Washington to get to work on working things out so that we can all get back to focusing on living our lives. We discussed the challenges of living and working in the Washington media “bubble” (his word; I prefer “echo chamber”). To his credit, he has long made the point to spend time outside that bubble. But shouldn’t we also try to address the babble which feeds the bubble?
The right to free speech protects babble as much as serious debate, so the answer does not lie in limiting or restricting its production or dissemination. But that doesn’t mean we have to listen to it. The free market of ideas is like the free market of goods and services – we can simply vote with our ears. I am not suggesting that we withdraw into willful ignorance, but that we find and support communication channels that give us what we need, not what others want to sell. We will quickly find that the media market can be as efficient as any other, and will adjust to meet that need. Whether Washington will then follow suit remains to be seen.