Is moderation dead?

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Is moderation dead?

Watching the electoral processes in Korea and America, Tinkerbell’s mortality comes to mind.

In the Korean national elections, we were entertained by songs, shouted slogans and even dancing. But there was relatively little discussion of policy beyond promises of deliverables. The same can be said about the American presidential election.

In the United States, we are entertained with mass-media sound bites and Twitter tweets. There are also large political rallies. The two most charismatic politicians of the left and right encourage their supporters to cheer enthusiastically.

I am reminded of the Broadway play “Peter Pan,” where Peter explains to Wendy that whenever a child says, “I don’t believe in fairies,” that child’s fairy dies. However, turning to the audience, Peter promises a dying fairy can be brought back to full life if a child — and the audience — excitedly proclaim repeatedly, “I believe in fairies!” That makes for entertaining fairy-tales — and increasingly, it makes for successful politics. A politician need only offer a vision made up of slogans. Offered policies are too often light in or devoid of practical details as to how such visions can be made a reality.

In the past, politicians were often nailed down by journalists. But today, journalists are slaves to the clock — or precisely stated, the second hand. Too often, I have watched perceptive journalists try to nail down a politician for clarification. And too often, I have watched politicians offer vague or intentionally misleading answers. These politicians know full well that the interviewer has precious seconds. The politicians run up the clock, and the journalists are forced to move to another topic or end the interview.

These evasive strategies work less well in televised town hall meetings or during print interviews. But fewer voters are willing to invest the time to watch or read these prolonged interviews. We all seem to suffer from CADD (cyber attention deficit disorder). Even those of us who bother to pick up a newspaper or a news journal are likely to be interrupted by beeps from our smartphones, messaging coming in from nearby televisions, etc. Even when we try to read in-depth analysis and background information online, we are frequently distracted by banner messages or pop-up messages on our screens.

The shorter the message, the less the opportunity to adequately explore and consider a topic. Politicians recognize this and tailor their often repetitious messaging to short bursts aimed at emotions. Over time, this creates extreme polarity in the electorate as people choose sides, too often primarily based on oversimplified messages directed more to the heart than the mind.

Last month, the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves wrote in Bloomberg Government that the policies of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump “signal a broad set of values, rather than chart a realistic way forward.” Detailed policies take a bit of work to digest and to consider. But values and visions are easier to cheer when presented at campaign rallies and delivered in short statements over the media.
Reeves concludes his essay with, “What use is there for policy analysis when it seems as if politicians barely need policies at all? … If policy and politics separate entirely, the people who end up in office are likely to have little regard for policies, or even the skills required to make them. This will reduce the chances that policies will be implemented successfully, or that they will be effective, and therefore make them even less relevant to an electorate already concerned that our governance system is broken. Worse, the careless disregard for facts, laws, costs and even basic math is corrosive to the democratic process.”

Meanwhile, those of us whose backgrounds range from moderate Democrats to progressive Republicans (the latter being my own, before such a label became an oxymoron) are rarely taken seriously in political discourse. Either our self labeling as being “moderate” is taken to mean “liberal” by conservatives or to imply “conservative” by liberals.

Moderate or even apolitical organizations were once broadly supported by wide varieties of Republicans and Democrats. Today, they have too often taken sides. The American Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association have come down almost universally with the GOP, and thereby have wandered into the far right, while Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union no longer have hardly any Republicans and are now considered residing in the left wing of the Democratic Party.

As a result, those of us claiming the middle ground stand increasingly alone. Sometimes, we seem to number as few as — and taken as seriously as — fairies.

With all the cheering of simplistic sloganeering coming from the left and the right, endorsing visions offered by pandering politicians, it’s becoming more of a challenge to find opportunities to review relevant facts, sort through competing analyses and come to balanced perspectives.

You are commended to be reading this, if only because you are taking the time to read a newspaper. But a newspaper is just one source. We can only hope more people like you also allocate the time to look in depth into other, ideally contradictory information sources.

As Richard Reeves suggests above, our democratic institutions were founded on well-informed citizens. We must try to ignore the simple slogans and try to consider what are the core issues and practical solutions. We need not believe in fairies. But we need to take our civic responsibilities personally, including working at being adequately informed.


*The author is a long-term resident of Korea and author of two books on doing business, including “Doing Business in Korea: An Expanded Guide.”

Tom Coyner

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