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May 11, 2005

against "spoonfeeding" the public

Because both of Maine's Senators are swing votes on the question of filibustering judicial appointments, that state is now the focus of intense lobbying and advertising. However, the Times' David Kirkpatrick finds that "most citizens have only a hazy idea of what the fuss is about. In interviews with about two dozen Mainers in Portland, Augusta and their suburbs during this week's Senate recess, none had a clear understanding of the Senate procedure at the heart of the debate: the filibuster, a tactic that allows a minority of senators to stymie the chamber by standing against the 60 votes needed to close a debate."

All else being equal, it is a Bad Thing that people don't understand the issue that is likely to consume their Senate for a month or more. It means, among other things, that strongly ideological interest groups enjoy more power than they would if everyone were following the issue.

People are certainly capable of understanding a filibuster. I'm always amazed at how many people can write software, play an instrument and understand music theory, or organize complex financial transactions--all problems that I find somewhat intimidating but that are harder to grasp than a filibuster.

I'm professionally committed to the idea that we should teach children and adolescents more about politics and government. However, I don't believe that 40-year-olds will remember the definition of a filibuster because they learned it in ninth grade. Civic education is important because it provides a baseline of understanding so that people can begin to follow the news. The news media could do a better job of explanatory journalism, but if people don't want to learn about Senate procedures, no amount of explanation will help.

Ultimately, I believe we need several layers of politics. The top layer is national and international affairs, and it must be a spectator sport for most citizens. We want people to be interested and informed about national and global issues so that they can vote well, but extensive participation is unrealistic. There must be other layers in which direct participation is possible and potentially rewarding. As my colleage Steve Elkin argues, municipal politics is an excellent source of civic education, because the scale is large enough to matter (and to encompass diversity), yet small enough for people to grasp and to affect. Also, municipalities must grapple daily with perhaps the core issue of any market democracy, which is how much to benefit investors in the interest of economic growth.

If people worked in local politics (and at least twice as many held local office 50 years ago as today), then they would understand legislative processes first-hand. They would also have identities as active citizens that would motivate them to follow national news. My friend and co-editor John Gastil has found that members of juries--with the exception of juries that deadlock--are considerably more likely than comparable people to vote in elections. At first, this finding doesn't seem to make much sense: jury service is profoundly different from voting. The only reasonable explanation is that "citizenship" is one thing in people's minds. If they become active citizens in one domain, they behave that way in others, too.

Thus, instead of trying to make Maine residents (of any age) understand the filibuster, I would put my energy into involving them in town and county affairs, co-op and condo boards, student associations, union locals, and other political bodies of human scale.

Posted by peterlevine at May 11, 2005 11:47 AM

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