tweedledumAs my regular readers know, this weblog is just a means to an end. The ‘end’ is a number of things: Getting people aware of and knowledgeable about and energized about the really important issues, not the ones they’re spoon-fed by the pandering media; and exploring, and discussing out loud, and then acting on real solutions to those issues. These issues are all complex, and people appreciate that they are complex, which is why it’s so infuriating to watch the candidates, the pollsters and the media attempt to reduce them to absurdly simple sound-bites and either/or decisions. Just to take one example: I’m convinced that a key solution to inequality in our society is teaching people how to establish their own small businesses. What ‘issue’ does that fall under: Employment, Education or Poverty?

All of the issues are to some extent interrelated, and pigeon-holing voters’ and candidates’ positions on these issues is not only impossible, it impedes people from thinking holistically about these issues. What I find particularly outrageous is that pollsters very rarely even ask voters what they think are the important issues to be addressed, nor do they separate issues that can (or should) reasonably addressed by political bodies from those that need to be addressed by every one of us, as responsible citizens and individuals. This suggests, not so subtly, that we as citizens and consumers have no responsibility for dealing with issues, and that political actions are the solution to everything. And on those rare occasions when voters are asked (rather than told) what the major issues are, they are forced to pick from a pre-selected, and horribly biased, list of issues that the major parties have chosen for them.

Here is an alphabetical list of all 43 issues that, from what I can find, the candidates in the upcoming US election have been asked for, or have expressed, an opinion on. In the 2004 polls I can find, the 28 in red italics have not been included in any lists of ‘important issues’ that people have been asked to choose the ‘one most important’ from:

Mostly Political Issues:

Campaign Finance Reform
Civil Rights & Freedoms

Defense Spending/Military Policy
Foreign Policy: Middle East
Foreign Policy: Rest of the World
Separation of Church and State
Term Limits

Mostly Economic Issues:

Corporate Power & Regulation
Fiscal & Monetary Policy
Free Trade & Globalization
Taxes: Flat vs Progressive

Taxes: Overall Level

Mostly Social & Educational Issues:

Crime: Prevention
Crime: Punishment
Conservation: Drilling, Logging, Mining Policy
Conservation: Programs & Incentives

Education: Control & Funding
Education: Curriculum
Education: School Prayer
Education: Sex Education
Education: Vouchers
Environmental Protection
Global Warming
Gun Control
Health Care: Accessibility & Equality
Health Care: Public vs Private
Illegal Drug Policy
Immigration Policy
Overpopulation & Family Planning Policy
Same-Sex Marriage

Mostly Business & Technology Issues:

Labour Union Policy
Minimum Wage/Wage Gap
Oil Shortages and Prices
R&D/Innovation Funding & Support

Self-Employment Options
Stem Cell Research

Notice that the 15 non-italicized ‘options’ that pollsters give you to choose from as ‘most important’ issues are heavily biased towards (a) moral issues, and (b) issues with few options and little complexity.

In fact, the ‘selection’ of these 15 issues makes the job easy for the pollsters, the media, the two main parties and dumbed-down voters, because:

  • The positions of the two main parties on the 5 identified political and economic issues are virtually indistinguishable,
  • The positions of the two main parties on the 10 identified social and educational and business issues are diametrically opposed, ‘classical’ liberal and conservative positions:
Republicans Democrats
Abortion opposed matter of choice
Punishment of Crime stricter, more prisons, 2 strikes more focus on prevention
School Prayer support opposed
Sex Education opposed, kids should abstain support
Vouchers support opposed
Gun Control opposed support
Health Care Accessibility basics for all, 2-tier for rest universal and equal
Same-Sex Marriage opposed support
Stem-Cell Research opposed support
Unemployment ‘the market’ will fix it help you get back on your feet

  • For the most part, a ‘moderate’ position on these 10 issues has been so well entrenched by previous lawmakers and by the courts that there is very little chance of any real change in laws in these areas, so both sides can posture safely to their constituencies knowing they’ll never have to deal with the consequences (and political blow-back) of living with radical laws on any of these issues.

No wonder so many voters believe that, despite the differences in policies, it doesn’t really make any difference which gets elected. Meanwhile the 28 real issues listed in italics above — the resolution of which (or our failure to properly address) will have far-reaching implications for the type of world we live in in the future, the quality of our lives, and quite possibly our survival as a species, get next to no attention in the campaigns and in the media. The candidates are free to talk about these at a very high level, speaking in platitudes about their importance but making no promises, taking no strong stands, and offering no plan of action for dealing with them. Why? Because of the tacit agreement by

  1. pollsters not to raise them,
  2. the media to talk about them as important and complex and difficult but not urgent, and to play down any solutions that might require a party to take a political stand,
  3. the major parties not to force the other’s hand by getting into a no-win (for them) debate on these intractible and expensive problems, and
  4. we, the citizens, who won’t call any of these three complicitous groups to account for their unwillingness to tackle these real issues in more than non-committal, hand-wringing ways.

So what is the answer? Partly, we need a host of democratic reforms (campaign finance reform, voting system reform, an end to gerrymandering etc.) that will open up the political systems in the English-speaking nations to third parties and hence broaden debate to cover issues that any party considers important. Partly, too, we need media reforms (political independence from corporate ownership and control, local autonomy, less concentration of ownership, less dependence on corporate advertising) that will encourage and enable the mainstream media to cover a broader range of issues, educate the public about these issues, and challenge politicians to take clear and actionable positions on them.

Ultimately, though, it’s up to us to realize we’re being had, to educate ourselves about the critical issues that face our world, and to take personal responsibility for addressing them. We can

  • refuse to vote for politicians who don’t take a clear stand on these issues, who fail to deliver on their promises, or who block the needed democratic and media reforms described above,
  • abandon mass media that pander to political interests and public ignorance, in favour of independent media and public broadcasters that present fuller, better information,
  • refuse to buy from corporations that lobby for laws against the public interest, support dishonest and disreputable politicians, or exhibit socially or environmentally irresponsible behaviours,
  • consume less, and recycle more, and in general take more personal responsibility as consumers,
  • work for changes in the education system that will give future generations the knowledge and skills needed to understand and deal with these issues, using social pressure, technology and entrepreneurship, instead of waiting for politicians and regulators to do everything for us,
  • become volunteers and activists, to bring about change person-to-person, at a level far more meaningful and effective than anything centralized government can hope to accomplish, and
  • perhaps most importantly, engage each other in meaningful discourse, ‘smarten each other up’ by sharing information and ideas and engaging in critical debate on real issues and brainstorming on possible solutions when we meet socially, instead of letting the media dictate the subjects of our conversation.

The current system works well for those with political power and economic wealth, protecting it and entrenching it. Big corporations (including the big media) and major political parties have no motivation to change the system. The dumbing-down of public discourse to simple, often trivial issues plays right into their hands. But their power depends on our complacency.

Think about your children and grandchildren, decide what are your real issues, and start talking about them, and doing something about them. Don’t wait for the politicians and other ‘leaders’ to catch up — there’s nothing in it for them. It’s time to leave them behind, give up on them, and take matters into our own hands, before it’s too late.

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  1. Luisa says:

    Well said. I was just reading about a campaign to democratize the presidential debates (instigated by, an organization I volunteer with)and allow discussion of many of these taboo issues. This page documenting the exclusion of critical issues from the 2000 debates makes a nice companion to your post (it’s startling evidence of how extreme this silent censorship is:

  2. hetty says:

    Good entry! But why should people start businesses if we need to consume less?

  3. hetty:We still need to make a living; so let’s bypass the powers that be, and get on with our lives, our livelihood and our society. The government may catch up to us some day …

  4. Derek says:

    > We need to refuse to buy from corporations that …Well for me, that would mean no more gas, no more food (except for a few vegetables at the farmer’s market), no more electricity, no more parts for my car, no more computers, no more clothes, etc. I might be able to buy water if I turn a blind eye to how the water hauler spends his money. Pretty much would wipe my family out in a matter of weeks.Seriously, do you really think anyone could even survive only buying from the handful of “socially conscious” corporations out there?

  5. gbreez says:

    Yes. It can be done. Not all at once, but, slowly. By letting go of all those things you think you need but really do not. Buying from smaller stores where things cost more but you are not supporting the Walmarts of the world (and they are spreading like cancer). Reuse. Recycle. Trade. Use less electricity and consider getting solar or wind or some other to reduce the amount you buy off the grid. Carpool to work. Shop less frequently with a premade list that will last you 2 to 4 weeks. Every small step you take helps and paves the way for change. And stop watching TV!!!

  6. Indigo Ocean says:

    Great article, Dave. I recently saw the movie The Corporation and this article reminds me of the way the media, governement (FDA), and corporate power (Monsanto) worked together to not only supress a major news story that would have alerted the public to a serious health threat (one which still continues), but even managed to hook in the courts and create a dangerous precedent for all future whistle-blowers. Basically the courts said that being fired for refusing to report lies as news was perfectly legal — only being fired for refusing to break the law was illegal and for the news media to knowing mislead the public is not illegal!How is it the only way I found out about any of this was through watching a movie? How is it no politician has taken up any part of this travesty of justice? I care about the safety of the milk I drink and I care that whistle-blowers feel safe to come forward. I think most Americans care quite a bit about both. Yet their appears to be a conspiracy within government, media and business to prevent us from considering any of this important to our lives. What else are we not being told?

  7. Indigo Ocean says:

    BTW, if anyone is interested in finding out more about the issue I am referring to you can take a look at for the whole story.P.S. I no longer drink cow’s milk.

  8. Derek says:

    gbreez –> Yes. It can be done.My point is that it can’t. At least not the buying from Corporations part.Maybe my case is unusual because I don’t live in a mega-sprawling metropolis. So there are no small stores that compete with Walmart/HomeDepot/Safeway. None. And driving >150 to phoenix is not the answer either.> Use less, recycle, shop less frequently, etc.None of these reduce my dependence on large Corporations one bit.> Carpool to work. And stop watching TV!!!You’re preaching to the choir here. I watch Stargate SG1 repeats once a week, otherwise the TV is pretty much off. I use less gas in a year than you use in a week. (I put 310 miles on my car last year.) But these are not “change the world” habits. They’re good conservation efforts but that’s not going to change the balance of power in this country.

  9. Kevin says:

    What I find interesting is that all the issues that are labled as “important” issues (the ones in black) are issues that I, nor anyone I know, could easily explain as to why they are important, but the issues in red, the ones that aparently are not important to voters, are mostly issues that we can very clearly state our views on, and we *know* why they are important. We know what is to be lost or gained, and most people have strong oppinions on.

  10. natasha says:

    I agree with the difficulty of not doing business with corporations. GE is a big corporate sinner, and they have hands in all kinds of pies. There are no socially responsible corporations, to my knowledge, that make household appliances, electronic goods, hand tools, or a host of other things. And it’s hard to find products that are made with a care for my social conscience. I try to take advantage of them when they’re available, but it’s not always possible.Right now, my environmental crusade consists of trying to save the world through grocery shopping, and helping less objectionable candidates for office get elected. I reject the notion that I should abandon all political figures who don’t fit my perfect ideal, because democracy is about persuasion. Every good idea to which the public is not persuaded falls by the wayside sooner or later. Every good idea which a politician doesn’t hear ‘boo’ about from their constituency goes quietly into the dustbin of history.I do want to take these issues up, but it’s on my shoulders as a voter to speak out to elected officials more than I used to, as much as it’s on my shoulders as a consumer to be as responsible in my purchasing habits as I can manage.

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Luisa: Great link, thanks.Hetty: Don’t know if your question is tongue in cheek, but community-based enterprises are essential to the goal of consuming less: they make better stuff, service it better, waste less, import less, and transport less, and tend to be focused on essential goods and services rather than manufactured ‘needs’. Derek: I think you just have to pick the lesser of evils and do your best. For example, we now make only half the number of shopping trips we used to, which saves gas, buy nothing on impulse, buy local and Canadian goods and services whenever there’s a reasonable option, and buy Sunoco Canada gas (certified cleanest by Canada’s DOE) and never Esso (ExxonMobil). It adds up, and doesn’t entail any great sacrifice.Indigo/Kevin: Agreed. Imagine if we could get candid opinions from both parties on these issues!Natasha: You’re right, and it’s not always possible to ‘do no harm’ with each consumer and citizen decision we make. I don’t know if you’ve read this article or not, but it raises my already-substantial concerns that, while Kerry may be better than Bush, having the choice between just these two obfuscates the fact that neither of them is satisfactory on any of the critical issues that face us, and getting rid of Bush is just a distraction from the much more substantial political and social changes we need to get on with.

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