Monday, November 16, 2009

Bring Back the Bully Pulpit

As someone who believes that people disagree because they have different interests, I am always a bit disconcerted to see how much simple ignorance there is in political discourse, and how much it affects politics. In another way, of course,  it's encouraging, as it suggests political disagreements don't always require a duel to the death.

For example, it appears that large numbers of people do not know that the United States does not, by any reasonable definition, have the best health-care system in the world. In fact, it is arguable that among advanced industrial economies, we have the worst health-care system in the world. And, I would guess (I don't have survey data), many people don't know that the budget deficit declined during the Clinton Administration, and by the end had disappeared altogether and turned into a small surplus. Or that most income gains in the US over the last 30 years have been concentrated at the very top of the income distribution.Or that foreign aid makes up less than 1% of the Federal budget. Clearly, it's hard to have a sensible democracy if voters don't know such things.

This is not to deny that differing interests do play a role. Some people are happy to keep voters misinformed. There's a right-wing website called The Conspiracy to Keep You Poor and Stupid, and while I don't think it's exactly a conspiracy, and we seem to have different ideas of who the culprits are, there's no doubt that for any given fact, there will be people who will not think it a good idea to have it more widely known. And inevitably there will be those who will see political advantage in outright lies, or, as they no doubt think of it, exaggeration and poetic license [12/31: or metaphor]. I won't rehash the ubiquitous comments about the Internet and short news cycles as contributors to these problems.

For people who believe in democracy the question is, what can be done about this? Can we have a more evidence-based democracy? My ideal solution would be to give me, Howard Frant, a half-hour at night once a week on one of the major networks, along with a pollster to measure what people do and don't know. But even my second choice, giving me Andy Rooney's slot on 60 Minutes, seems unlikely.

So I think it's time to revive the idea of the "bully pulpit." For those of you unfamiliar with this phrase of Teddy Roosevelt's, it has nothing to do with bullying. What TR meant was that the Presidency was an excellent  platform for addressing the public. Let's start using that platform to teach the public things--specifically, to challenge widely held incorrect beliefs . Imagine how "transformative" it would be to have a President come out and say, "Many people believe X. X is not true." Plain speaking. No waffling. Give 'em hell, Barry.

For example: "Many people say that the United States has the best health care system in the world. We don't. We should, but we don't. Different advanced industrialized countries around the world, say the Western European countries, Japan, Taiwan, Canada and Australia, have different health care systems. Some are more oriented to the public sector and others to the private sector. But every single one of them has universal health care for its citizens. Every one. Every one of them has better health--lower infant mortality and longer life expectancy--than we do. Every one spends less, from 25% to 50% less, on health care than we do. Every one. And they have higher patient satisfaction and shorter patient waiting times than we do. How is this possible?" Suddenly, the whole debate shifts.

As a general strategy for improving democratic debate, this has the obvious weakness that Presidents will choose only those facts that support their partisan goals. OK, Presidents are not wholly altruistic public servants. But by putting at least some facts out there for scrutiny by the "gotcha" brigade of the media, they can force the debate to start on the field of facts, before we fight over ideologies. Let the President give the press the footnotes to his speech to be checked, and let the opposition do the same with its reply.

Once this gets established as a custom, it will put pressure on future Presidents to do the same. Most politicians don't benefit from having people screaming at each other; let's make those who do stand out. We need all Presidents to be education Presidents.


  1. You are so right! At the very least, you should be Barry's speechwriter!

  2. At the least. Give him a call, would you?