Dear America: The Conversation Is Off the Rails

When we stop talking, democracy stops working.

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Photo by Josh Johnson on Unsplash

Don’t worry, this is a neutral article. There’s no liberal, moderate, or conservative agenda.

If you’re a rational American who believes in democracy, then this is safe for you to read. So relax, let your guard down, and open your mind.

Regardless of your politics, I bet you feel like our government isn’t working for you. You’re not alone, as nearly 80% of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job:

To make matters worse, just 17% of Americans trust the federal government, which is an all-time low:

In an era of widespread discord, it’s a sad irony that 8 in 10 of us agree Congress is doing a bad job and our government isn’t trustworthy.

So much for a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Why has our faith in government sunk to such a shameful low? While there are many drivers of dissatisfaction, there’s one major problem that stands out to me:

We’re not discussing the issues anymore.

There are a number of pressing issues that most Americans agree should be a national priority. But rather than discuss these important topics, the national conversation has gone off the rails.

For example, regardless of your politics, I bet you think the topics below are important issues our country should be working on. While we might have different perspectives on the right solutions, I think we can all agree that solving these are critical to our long-term success:

  • Wealth gap between the rich, middle class, and poor
  • Health care availability, quality, and cost
  • Losing jobs to automation and outsourcing
  • Ever-expanding national debt
  • Lobbying and corruption in Washington
  • Gun violence and mass shootings
  • Terrorism and national security
  • Education availability, quality, and cost
  • Immigration and border security

This isn’t a complete list, but it’s an illustrative handful of topics that would make the average American sit up straight and say, “Yeah, that matters to me and I think we need to…”

To illustrate how our government should work, let’s look at a polarizing issue such as gun violence. We can all agree that public massacres are bad and we’d like to see less gun violence. Potential solutions fall across a wide spectrum: some Americans think we should have no guns, others think we should have more guns, some think we should improve mental health resources, and hundreds of other ideas that fall between.

In a functioning democracy, our political representatives would carry such views to Washington, engage in a vigorous debate, and ultimately take some kind of good-faith action to try and reduce gun violence. The action wouldn’t be perfect and we’d all probably agree with some elements and disagree with others. But it would be an honest attempt to move our country in the right direction. We’d watch how it goes and adjust as needed.

But that’s not happening. National conversation on the topics above has completely broken down. It’s gotten so scattered and contentious that we’re not even discussing the issues anymore. Our politicians and media are too focused on soundbites and optics to make time to address what actually matters. They’ve stopped trying to solve our problems.

Every day I read a range of left and right-leaning media sites, including CNN, Fox News, Business Insider, Politico, Daily Beast, The Atlantic, Zero Hedge, CNBC, and Drudge Report to see what readers across the political spectrum are consuming. Sadly, it’s mostly noise. There are very few thoughtful discussions about how to move our country forward. Our government has become a bad soap opera, stumbling from one manufactured drama to the next. Meanwhile, our country is stagnating. We’re standing still while our most pressing issues fester and grow.

Would you tolerate such a political circus in your own community?

Imagine attending this local town hall meeting about how to fix a dangerous intersection at the end of your street:

The high school gymnasium devolves into a frenzy of pointing and shouting. Councilwoman Smith calls Councilman Johnson a “crash dummy” after he declares the meeting a “scam to raise taxes.” Fire Chief Williams demands Mayor Jones be investigated for “Hydrant-gate.” Parks Director Brown shrieks into an open mic, “Librarians are running an underground fight club!” And local reporter Eddie Miller scribbles down the headline, “You Won’t Believe Shocking Town Hall Brawl.”

In the corner, Transportation Director Anderson slips his thoughtful traffic proposal back into his briefcase and hangs his head.

Reason has left the building. The conversation is off the rails. Accidents continue to pile up. Eventually, someone dies.

That dysfunctional town hall is America today.

It’s OK if we don’t agree on the issues. We’re not supposed to. Most reasonable Americans are willing to compromise in certain areas in order to make progress overall. That’s how democracy works.

But when we stop talking, democracy stops working.

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