The seemingly endless gauntlet of presidential debates may or may not tell us much about the Republican and Democratic candidates, but they do shine a light – unfavorably – on the quality of our civic discourse.
It’s not just the base level of the candidates’ attacks on each other, although Trumpish opponent-bashing seems to be the common way for candidates to score points against one another and raise their poll ratings among an electorate that relishes reality-show conflict.
More than that, it’s the quality of civic conversation that’s fostered – or not – by the questions put to the candidates by the media and the political punditry. We don’t seem to want good answers. It’s the brute force of the questions that seem to matter most.
I don’t often find myself agreeing with Ted Cruz, but his fiery tongue-lashing of the CNBC moderators during the Boulder debate had a ring of reality to it. The Texas senator noted that the panelists’ questions targeted the personal vulnerabilities of his fellow candidates – Trump’s bankruptcies, Fiorina’s firing as a CEO, Carson’s math skills – rather than the issues of the day.
“How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?” Cruz asked. That won the biggest audience applause of the evening. (Never mind that the question that touched off Cruz’s blowup was about the national debt.)
The point is that very few of us – politicians, journalists, citizens – are asking questions about current issues, much less the deeper concerns of our common humanity.
I recently attended a lecture at Duke by Krista Tippett, who hosts an interview program on National Public Radio called “On Being.” The program focuses on topics of human existence and spirituality, and she is a master at crafting questions that elicit answers of depth and resonant meaning. (Unfortunately, her show airs on WUNC at 6 a.m. on Sundays; it’s worth getting up for, or downloading the recordings.)
Tippett made two key points that resonated with me and should with anyone concerned about the public conversation reflected in the political arena.
The first is that “words matter,” something I as a journalist love to hear. We are starved, Tippett said, “for a fresh language to approach each other. We crave words that shimmer, individual words of power – words to convey real truth, which is something different from conveying facts.”
Facts often conceal truth. This is illustrated by the fact-checking reports that occur after debates, which reveal the exaggerations and sometimes outfight lies of the candidates. I was dismayed by the “facts” about Chapel Hill’s growth that were at the center of the Town Council elections. Development is a legitimate ground for choosing candidates, but it should be based on truths and not political agenda.
Tippett’s second telling point that stuck with me is that questions matter. She talked about questions as “civic tools” that can generate meaningful answers. “We trade in questions that aren’t questions at all,” she said, “but tools or even weapons that are meant to catch, corner, incite or at least entertain.”
The answers we get in our civic conversation reflect the quality of the questions we ask. The old schoolteacher maxim, that there is no such thing as a bad question, turns out to be wrong. Bad questions elicit bad answers.
Again, think of the nature of the questions posed at political debates, locally and nationally, that are shaped not to generate understanding but to create conflict or embarrassment, or score political points.
A good question, Tippett says, stems from the intentionality of the questioner, and that gets back to discovering truth. “We can formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity and revelation,” she says.
The example Tippett gives is the civil rights movement of the 1960s, where the conversation began with small groups of people asking why the condition of whole classes of people couldn’t be improved. The questions and the conversations they engendered emerged into a movement that, gradually over time, shifted society.
I would submit that the same phenomenon has occurred in our time in the changing conversation about same-sex relationships. What can be more illustrative of tectonic societal shift than the dictum once relied upon by the military – “Don’t ask, don’t tell”? It’s hard to believe that self-delusionary statement was our national policy until five years ago.
In our time, the revelatory questions need to be asked about our regard for disadvantaged peoples, our schoolchildren, the elderly, the ill, the displaced, the hungry. Our national and state policy is being shaped without holding leaders to account with truth-seeking questions that require meaningful answers.
Ted Vaden is a former editor and publisher of The Chapel Hill News. Readers may contact him in c/o firstname.lastname@example.org