Working Towards a 'Grownup' Democracy

Imagine spending more than 16 minutes of every hour taunting your friend, your neighbor, or your colleague. Consider how this would impact your ability to problem-solve and work together.

Sure, you may be thinking that you do have a person in your life who meets this description. What you may not realize is that we all know someone like this. Furthermore, this person is well beyond primary school, and he or she represents you in some of the most important decisions to be made.

Last week, the Washington Post reported on a Harvard University study showing that more than a quarter of communication in Congress consists of taunting. In an analysis of 64,033 press releases sent out from 2005 to 2007, Professor Gary King and two graduate students discovered that members of Congress spend about 27 percent of the time just taunting each other. Similarly, reviewing a week’s worth of recent news releases, King’s team found 20 percent to be taunts.

King said this taunting distracts Congress from finding common ground to solve national problems. “I think most people would say that this is not a good thing,” he said. Indeed, we find ourselves wondering how lawmakers can possibly focus on the complicated issues of our time and work cooperatively amidst the political racket. This communication style somewhat explains the partisan gridlock in Washington D.C. that has become the norm. 

Here in Oregon, we have had our fair share of partisan rancor, and it often reaches its shrillest over ballot measures. However, our very own legislature is looking to innovate by incorporating more information, deliberation, and citizen engagement into the initiative process.

We’re really glad Oregon lawmakers are working on the Citizens’ Initiative Review bill as a way to 'elevate the debate' beyond playground taunts. HB 2634 addresses divisive politics in two very important ways. First, it brings together diverse voters and allows them to learn about ballot measures, listen to one another, and have high-quality deliberation. Second, it gives voters statewide access to trustworthy, non-partisan information about the ballot measures.

Once again, Oregon is leading the way with its innovative policy. John Gastil, lead researcher of the National Science Foundation evaluation of the CIR, said that he believed other states will soon follow. If he is correct, then maybe we can ‘grow up’ as a nation, and adopt healthier communication and a healthier democracy.