DEBATING DEBATES

Another great thread unfolds on the Observation Deck:The First Mayoral Debate of the Lakewood Observer. (As always, the Lakewood Observer project in Lakewood, Ohio, is one of the truly innovative experiments in civic engagement, intelligence and journalism going on in the US today.)

Although it is obvious the US has become debate-crazy, as if debates between candidates are our era’s hula hoop, the effort to vet candidates is a worthy one.

The debate about the prospective mayoral debates in Lakewood provides a fascinating view of citizens discussing meta-structural and structural aspects of the format. Check it out.

How do you get a politician to answer challenging questions? I think I could do a better job than Tim Russert or Wolf Blitzer and sundry other excrable interviewers, but then I also understand I wouldn’t have a job after my first interview. Local civic forums are more congenial to intense inquiries. Candidates should be subjected to such inquiries!

When I was reflecting upon the discussion in Lakewood, I thought of an exercise applicable to any local debate.

Devise five questions for each candidate. These questions are qualified to be the most important and challenging questions you can come up with.

In turn, each question is concerned with:

1. A question about the candidate’s track record and prior performance.

2. A question about the single most crucial challenge facing the community, from the perspective of the questioner.

3. A concrete question about some unwanted trend likely to effect the community’s future apsirations

4. A focused question about what the candidate feels he or she doesn’t know enough about and how they would address this deficit.

5. A question about what specific ideas the candidate has for increasing and amplifying civic engagement, especially how these initiatives could be funded from tax monies.

A note about question 5: when I vote in off-national cycle elections in my eastern Cleveland suburb, I fall into the group numbering 15-25% of the electorate that bothers to vote. I have never heard a single councilperson or mayor or elected suburban official decry this ridiculous level of engagement. Ha! I know darn well this level of engagement suits the purposes of the local political elites and, in effect, this normal state of affairs expresses a mild anti-democratic tendency matched with an ‘investment deficit;’ a deficit likely partly explainable in terms of behavioral economics. In other words, many citizens don’t perceive that it is worth it to invest their time for the sake of voting.

So, as a radical ‘democratarian,’ I propose a concerted effort be made by citizens to begin to reconfigure this common behavioral feature. The top down instigation puts pressure on politicians and the bottom up instigation puts pressure on the disengaged.

Of course the normal stream of political discourse showcases mountains of spin and idealistic cliche while it vaunts a posture of action, (“I’m a doer!”) over deep thinking. This is, by virtue of my personal social-psychological preoccupations, always question begging about the actual cognitive dispositions of both politicians and citizens. For me, the drill-down should poke at the substance of cognitive capability and reveal whether or not a person can reason intelligently about what they want to do, what they know, and about what they don’t know. Not surprisingly, the singular abject feature of political discourse is that people peddle the idea that they are all-knowing, have an answer for every challenge, and, at the same time, the underlying structure of their viewpoints are not anybody’s business!

Pointed questions, posed to politicians, can yield evidence about whether the politician is ready to endorse an upwelling of civic intelligence. And, at the level of the citizen, the endorsement of civic intelligence is no less daring and no less capable of upsetting the apple cart of dessicated democracy.

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