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November 8, 2007

on spin, partisanship, conflict, and other bad words

We say, on the basis of our national focus-group report, that college students in the United States are hungry for political conversations that are authentic, involve diverse views and are free of manipulation and 'spin.'" That finding can provoke a skeptical response, as follows: Young people say they don't like the national political debate, but they have naive and unrealistic standards. The standard tactics of communication (such as negative political ads) work with young people; thus we should discount their distaste for political rhetoric.

I'd like to break this issue into parts. What are young people against?

1. Partisanship:
Almost half of our sample said they were Independents. I recall none who spoke up for the value of parties. A Princeton student explains, "I'm trying to figure out what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s ethically acceptable, and pulling my views from so many different places, it’s hard to put myself into one particular party." I'd say: This response is understandable, especially given how badly our actual parties behave. However, parties play an essential role; it is good for them to compete; and we need people to devote care and attention to the party of their choice, albeit not at the expense of the common good.

2. Conflict: No one likes it, but it's inevitable. Suppressing it can be dangerous. Our sample actually agreed with this. About one quarter said, "the political system is filled with unnecessary conflict," but 39 percent said, "there are so many competing groups in politics that conflict is unavoidable."

3. Negativity: The students don't like negative campaigning, but negative campaigning works. What to make of that? One answer is that some harshly critical discourse is valuable, yet the overall balance (in both the paid and unpaid media) is too critical--yet there's not much we can do about that, except to build good news organs that strive for an appropriate balance.

4. Spin and manipulation: Here's where I think the kids are saying something novel and important. They are the objects of unprecedented efforts to persuade them--powerful entities hire professionals to get them to buy stuff, to vote, to believe one side or another. These efforts are extremely sophisticated and often effective. But there is a brewing backlash against the whole idea of sophisticated mass persuasion. Most individuals see no alternative except to tune out completely. Still, there is an appetite for genuinely open-ended, diverse conversations in which most participants don't have a predetermined agenda.

November 8, 2007 10:24 AM | category: none


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