‘Conversation' no substitute for political debate
There was once a medieval Italian tyrant who was so feared by his subjects that when tales were told of his great mercy, people fled the city. I’m reminded of that oppressive ruler when calls go out, usually from the White House, for a “conversation” on a controversial political issue. It has become quite clear that no differences of opinion are welcome in these gatherings, for that would spoil the “consensus” that the initiator of the “conversations” seeks about what needs to be done.
Or should I say, what merely symbolic and therefore meaningless “legislation” needs to be enacted in order to strengthen the political power of the party that originally called for a “conversation”? Nowhere is this truer than of the current Democrat campaign for what is loosely called “gun control” but should be labeled “political control.”
After the tragic murders of 20 children and six women in Sandy Hook, Connecticut in January, President Obama used that euphemism for brow-beating the nation into placing legal restrictions on the ownership and use of firearms. But there has been less of an exchange of views than manipulation of public opinion. Sure, there have been a few conversations held here and there, by Vice President Joe Biden most prominently, but the primary device has been photo-ops with young children and their mothers and law enforcement personnel.
My most inspirational professor in graduate school taught the simple but profound wisdom that we cannot determine the solution to a problem before we actually know what the problem is. If one believes that shootings occur because people have access to guns, the obvious “solution” is to get control of guns. But if the problem is in fact that bad men and mad men sometimes use guns to kill people (along with knives, brass knuckles, chains, rods and God knows what else), then the challenge is to severely punish the bad and severely restrict the mad.
But this rational response requires us to admit that differences of opinion exist on gun control and other major political issues. Our Constitution established a Congress, consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which exists to deliberate on matters of federal jurisdiction, in the course of which debates were expected to occur over the pros and cons of proposed legislation. Indeed, debate was welcomed, for it is better for all relevant points of view to be taken into consideration than simply to give unanimous approval to what has been agreed to behind closed doors.
Sound familiar? Of course it does, for that is the means by which federal politicians have attempted to deal with fiscal, budgetary and debt problems in the last couple of years via a “grand bargain.” But to deprive Congress, and therefore the American people, of a free and full debate, not only leads to ill-considered legislation but to widespread public ignorance.
Our representatives should be encouraged to use their best judgment, make their case in floor debate, propose amendments, challenge the leadership (or inspire the rank and file) and otherwise rise above mere “conversation” to mature consideration.
Debate is not an infallible means by which to ensure the passage of good laws, but it is surely necessary. It should never be considered rude to disagree openly with what even the President of the United States proposes. However exalted his position, he is not above criticism.
To be fair, Republicans have also called for “conversations” about controversial issues too. But they are simply the flip side of the Democrat coin. Democrats want to avoid debate when they think they have an edge, while Republicans want to avoid debate when they don’t have an edge.
The best guidance, I believe, was given by Congressman Abraham Lincoln of Illinois in 1848, as he criticized President James K. Polk for starting a war with Mexico on Mexican soil. We support the President when he is right, Lincoln said, and we oppose him when he is wrong.
Not only did Lincoln engage in spirited debate, he believed that debate was healthy. Ten years later he engaged in seven famous debates with leading Democrat Senator Stephen A. Douglas, author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed slavery to enter the Louisiana Territory and thereby ignited a political firestorm. That remains the gold standard for political debate.
Citizens of a free republic welcome debate. Brow beatings masquerading as “conversations” are the poor substitute reserved for the subjects of a despotic regime.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of “ Taking Journalism Seriously: ‘Objectivity’ as a Partisan Cause” (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.