When Politics and Education Run Afoul

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO of Educational Policy Institute and EPI International

The conduct of public discourse in the United States worries me. Over the last few months, we’ve seen ugly, staged scenes of aggression and partisanship at health care public meetings; brutal disregard at the President’s speech to Congress; and the total politicization of the President’s Education Address to students. If those instances aren’t enough, we also have had to recently endure the “Birthers,” the “Tea Parties,” and the 9/12 event in Washington put on by conservative Glenn Beck. Please tell me: what the hell is going on in America?

This is what’s up: political demagogues, mostly of the far right-wing of the political spectrum, are taking it upon themselves to upset the applecart we call politics and society. Politics is ultimately about give and take; meeting in the middle. But that isn’t what we are seeing. We are seeing the ends of the political distributions taking ownership over important issues. And that can only lead to dangerous circumstances. Although the recent examples reside on the right side of the political distribution, there are certainly numerous examples during the Bush presidency on the left side.

But recent illustrations have most certainly upped the ante on political discourse. Every single American has a stake in health care reform. So there will be many perspectives. But the misinformation that has been put out by the right wing factions is inappropriate at best. We have a problem when political groups (not to mean parties, but…) have no interest in moving the discussion forward; the only interest is in stopping the conversation. What’s at stake? The last time we talked about health care reform was in 1993—the Hilary Reform. People didn’t like it. Democrats controlled the house and still couldn’t push it though, because the White House didn’t do a good sell. In political circles, we understand that there is about a 15-year or so sine curve when a federal issue can be brought back to the table. So this is our next chance. We blow it now, it’s gone until at least 2025. This is important because Obama is right in one critical point: we can’t solve the budget issue if we don’t resolve the health care issue. Beyond that, it’s open game. But for a political faction to organize misinformation and to derail public town hall discussions. Disgusting. At best.

This leads, of course, to the President’s address to Congress. At what point did this nation decide to act like the British (or Canadian) House of Commons? In those places, discourse by shouting, arguing, and occasional grunting, is a rite of passage. It actually works. In Congress, it doesn’t. It’s just damn rude. And the Representative from South Carolina, and his “grinning” colleagues (go back and look at the photo) should be ostracized because they have taken a serious blow at the Presidency and what it beholds in our society. Argue against policy; debate against opposition; but don’t disdain the President of the United States, especially while in the sacred halls of the Congress. That’s just bad form. If that wasn’t enough, the representative quickly called the White House to offer apology, but since has gone on a campaign (yes, fundraising), saying “I won’t be muzzled.”

Then the Education Address. Regardless who the President is: Republican, Democrat; White, Black, Hispanic; male, female; Northern, Southern; Born in Hawaii (maybe? Really?). When did the Education Address to the nation’s children become politicking? But this year, for the first time, it did. And it is the same people who were shouting during Congressional Speeches, causing commotion at Health Care hearings, and supporting Glenn Beck on the Mall in Washington, DC only a few weeks ago.

This is an education column, so why does this matter and why am I talking about it? Because we can’t get ANYTHING done in this country if we can’t even have civilized discussion about issues. I talk politics, but I try not to take sides or name parties unless required. But let’s be clear. The Republican Party needs to find its center and go with it and get rid of the fringe. It isn’t helping them or the country. Perhaps then, with proper leadership, we can have active dialogues about issues that are important to ALL AMERICANS, regardless of backgrounds. Health care matters. Education matters. Social Security matters. To all of us.

Can we have a progressive and civil dialogue?

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