If you’re like me, I imagine there have been times while watching the presidential debates this year that you’ve wanted to throw something at the screen or just turn it off, so juvenile and ignorant are the exchanges.
And I am getting paid to watch them.
So as an antidote, if time allows, I’ve been slipping out of the newsroom late in the afternoons and attending the National Issues Forums that NAU’s Philosophy in the Public Interest program has been moderating around Flagstaff (they are also in Sedona).
These have been focused this winter primarily on economic issues at the national level – how to pay for entitlements, education, health care, defense – and at the household level: what would it take to improve wages, make college more affordable, shore up and target the safety net, help entrepreneurs get started or just make ends meet.
So in some cases the NIF topics have overlapped with the presidential debates and the anger voters are feeling over lost jobs, slack wages, runaway budget deficits and growing income inequality. But after that, much of the similarities end. I’ve come away understanding not only the issues and their tradeoffs better, but more importantly, how they have affected attendees and what they think, after listening to others, should be done. Some have been out of work and homeless; others have started several businesses. Many students talked about the sacrifices that rising tuition and debt have meant to their families. Seniors, according to reports coming out of the Sedona meetings, testified to the importance of Social Security and Medicare in their lives.
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Importantly, no one is out to win a debate, either by putdown or sheer force of logic. But everyone is held accountable by a probing moderator and real-time fact-checkers plugged into the Internet – you can’t just make stuff up and get away with it.
As a journalist, I’m particularly interested in these stories and how the personal intersects with public policies. The presidential candidates attempt to do this by drawing on often irrelevant childhood experiences; the forum participants are talking about how they live and work today in Flagstaff. What would happen if the candidates were in such an audience listening and responding – and being asked to evaluate three specific options, not just pie-in-the-sky campaign promises?
It would also be enlightening to apply the NIF triple option approach to specific local issues. With the massive Hub project serving as catalyst, there is clearly a hunger out there for a more sustained conversation on growth and scale in Flagstaff. But the process so far has been a series of one-way hearings with members of the public given 3 minutes apiece at the podium, then the City Council having a conversation among themselves. Ferguson jumpstarted focused conversations nationwide about police race relations, and any number of mass shootings have galvanized discussions of gun safety measures. The Hub ought to prompt citizens and elected leaders to drill down through the regional plan and land use codes again to ask is this what we really want and, if not, what are the realistic options for change before the next Hub comes along.
The news media, however, have conditioned citizens to see issues framed either around polarizing personalities who goose TV ratings or specific projects with a limited set of options for policymakers once they get to the permit stage (we at the Daily Sun are complicit in this). Citizens need more in-depth information that sets up informed choices and the option to participate at a deeper level than a 3-minute soundbite. The same holds for candidates and elected officials – political listening has become a lost art. Journalism can do its part to set the stage for those conversations, but it’s the participants who need to engage them in good faith. Flagstaff and its council could do worse than the heavily backgrounded and expertly moderated National Issues Forum format – and after the latest round of Hub hearings that have disappointed so many, we all know it could do better.