Democracy Is a Pesky Thing

Last Thursday morning in North Carolina, after we had finished a pleasant hour of conversation on the air, Charlotte radio host Mike Collins handed me printouts of a few e-mails from listeners. A good bit of the interview had been about the role of ideological bias in the media, and I had expressed my view that most Americans are completely capable of sorting through the conflicting viewpoints that come from various outlets in order to arrive at sound conclusions. Or, put more baldly, I do not think either Fox News or The New York Times runs the world. If the former did, then Barack Obama would not be president; if the latter were in control, then the president would not be having so much difficulty at the moment. Instead, the reality is—as usual—muddled.

One of the e-mailers from Charlotte took exception to this, writing that I was "out of touch" with the "average American" and was "overestimating the intelligence" of most folks, who are, in the e-mailer's view, "undereducated and biased."

It is generally safe to translate "biased" in such a context as "someone who does not agree with me." Politics is inherently contentious—tribal life is about the management of a collection of interests—and it is natural for those who feel they are not getting their way to come to view disagreements as the result of the other side's ignorance. If only they understood the truth, this thinking goes, then they would (fill in the blank): vote for Sarah Palin, support health-care reform—whatever. The problem with this world view is that it presupposes there is a single truth on an issue such as health care, one arrived at through a rational consumption of facts. Competing views are thus not based on honest differences of opinion but on supposedly demonstrably false assumptions.

For liberals, the animating force of the distortion of political life is Fox News and Rush Limbaugh; for conservatives, it is the Times or, more broadly, the mainstream media, including, at times, NEWSWEEK. To echo Jefferson's first inaugural, though, every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. And every difference about politics or policy is not the result of biased information. Do some outlets tilt one way or another? Of course. Do people within other outlets do so, too? Of course. Does the Internet make it easier for a given viewpoint to be disseminated? Of course.

My point is that Americans who are engaged enough to vote or to contact their lawmakers are not as dopey or as easily led as the Charlotte e-mailer thinks. You cannot be for democracy when you are winning an argument and against it when you are losing one. Like free speech, democracy is pesky that way.

Nothing about government is easy. We are selfish, we have unreasonable expectations of government (we want it out of our lives, except when we don't), and we have abysmally short attention spans, but we are not dumb. And history suggests that in the end, after much trial and much error, we usually get it right.

I am not being Pollyanna-ish about things. Misinformation and disinformation pervade our political culture, and we make poor decisions based on a poor understanding of the complexities and long-term implications of issues all the time. To jump from that to a generic indictment of the intelligence of the people, however, is misguided and ultimately corrosive. As Winston Churchill once remarked, Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing—after exhausting all other alternatives.

Another Churchill note: Winston S. Churchill, the grandson of the prime minister, died last week in London. The son of Pamela Churchill Harriman and Randolph Churchill, young Winston (as he was known into his 60s) was born in 1940 and grew up to work in the family businesses: he was an author and member of Parliament. His death brought to mind a passage from a letter his grandfather wrote at the time Pamela and Randolph divorced in 1945. It is characteristically gracious and magnanimous, two qualities the prime minister embodied. "The war strode in havoc through the lives of millions," Churchill wrote Pamela's parents. "We must make the best of what is left among the ruins. Everything must be centered upon the well-being & happiness of the boy. Pamela has brought him up splendidly. There must be friendship to shield him from the defects of a broken home…It is a comfort that the relations between our two families remain indestructible."