Mike the Mad Biologist

Can There Even Be Political Discourse?

This week’s Carnival of Liberals, hosted by Philosophy, et cetera, asks contributors to submit posts that “assess the state of political discourse, or the question of how politics should be conducted.” So, let’s talk about that state of political discourse.

One problem that’s always bothered (and intrigued) me is how citizens and voters are supposed to decide highly technical issues. Every day, the government, whether it be local, state, or federal, makes decisions about verycomplex issues that require a great deal of knowledge and training. As an example, ask yourself if you can assess how effective the government’s efforts to combat hospital-acquired infections are (an aside: this isn’t a ‘small’ issue; hospital-acquired infections kill 90,000 people per year in the U.S.). Actually, you could probably guess, “ineffective”, and you would be right, but, during the reign of Little Lord Pontchartrain, everything has gone to shit, so imagine answering the question if we were governed by a marginally competent administration.

Most people lack the time, inclination, and training to gain adequate knowledge to vote and advocate knowledgably about complex issues. So how can there be a meaningful discourse about these issues? (The recent estimate of the casualties in Iraq published in the Lancet is one example). The temptation is to leave this sort of thing to the experts, but then again, Richard Perle and the other Princelings of Darkness were misperceived as experts, so that’s not satisfactory either. Now, certain failures are so catastrophic that you don’t require expertise to comprehend failure. Here’s one example:

(from here)

On the other hand, there’s a complimentary problem: the ignorance of the citizen (and the Mad Biologist is ignorant of a great many things too). Anyone who has ever phone or door-to-door canvassed for votes has encountered what is euphemistically called the ‘low information content voter.’ Some of these voters are not even aware that there are political solutions to particular problems. Many vote based on ethos and ‘character’, and not on issues, so how does one have any political discussions with them? “Candidate X is a good person. Is not! Is too!”

The only way I see out of this is for liberals and progressives to recognize that many voters require narratives in which to place political issues and events in context. For the technical issues, the narrative allows us to gain support without a detailed understanding of the complexities: quickly, lay out the arguments in defense of global warming. If it makes you feel better, I failed too. I don’t remember the arguments off the top of my head, but I trust the experts who do. But if global warming is placed in the context of narratives such as “saving the planet”, “using technology to make a cleaner world”, and so on, we can gain (and have gained) support.

For the low information voters, narratives will serve a second, and vital, role: to educate them as to what government can actually do. Think about an entire generation’s enthrallment with FDR: his actions and policies taught citizens that government can and should do certain things to guarantee the welfare of its citizens.

So perhaps, worrying about discourse shouldn’t be the priority. Instead, building a narrative, both with words and deeds, is where liberalism should be headed.


  1. #1 llewelly
    November 9, 2006

    And that’s why Arnie won; he had an entire career of strong narratives.
    Do any democrats have strong positive narratives? I’m sorry, but I cannot, offhand, think of any.