In defense of “Question Time”

My dear friends at Reason Magazine’s Hit & Run blog — specifically Web editor Tim Cavanaugh — recently struck a tone a bit too cynical for my liking.

A small army of political pundits, Web geeks and others from the left, right, center, top, bottom and other corners of the political universe joined forces to demand “question time.” They want for the United States a public, televised and Web-streamed version of the U.K.’s Prime Minister’s Questions. They want more of what we recently saw in Baltimore.

Cavanaugh writes:

Demand Question Timers, I am with you in spirit, but not in reality. Question Time, or more precisely, “Prime Minister’s Questions,” is a habit of a parliamentary system based on majoritarian consensus, in which the head of state is a monarch. The U.S. government is a republic built on divided branches, in which the head of state is a temporary official. There’s nothing wrong with conflating the two in an informal way, but why should anybody believe this will improve Washington, D.C.’s cycle of making and enforcing laws? While it’s true that the exchange was “substantive, civil and candid,” government is not about candor, civility or substance. No minds were changed in this debate, nor should they have been, because the president and the Congress are, by order of the Constitution, natural opponents.

Nobody came away from the q&a with any new information or insight into the Health Care Reform debate, or the stimulus, or any other topic other than the loveliness of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s family. That all these talented and persuasive people did a vigorous job of defending their positions is not surprising, but were we somehow lacking in vigorous defenses of their positions before?

Obama and the Republicans over the last year have not lacked means, motive and opportunity to get their respective messages out. Getting these messages out is the dedicated task of vast media and public relations machines that continue to grow, sucking dry the marrow of our nation. [emphasis mine]

No, Tim, Obama and his political opponents do not lack the opportunity to “get their messages out.” That’s not the point of a regular, public “question time,” though — and if anyone suggests it is, he’s short-sighted. The point, at least in part, is to give the voting public an opportunity — a regular, highly visible opportunity — to hear those messages in a longer form. In a form more substantive, more meaningful and more genuine than those conveyed by the typical direct mail campaign, television advertisement or PAC Web site.

I can’t wait to write more about this book in the future, but for now, I’ll leave you with this: In “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America,” James Davison Hunter closes with a set of “practical steps” for easing the rhetorical and social tensions between opposing groups he describes as “progressive” and “orthodox.” The first and perhaps most obvious is “changing the environment of public discourse.”

The reason is plain. Genuine debate, whether public or private, is always dialectic; always a direct and immediate exchange. Positions taken and accusations made can be challenged directly by rebuttal, counterpropositions, cross-examination, and, inevitably, the presentation of evidence. […] Needless to say, extremist rhetoric is extremely difficult to maintain in this discursive environment. The very context of genuine debate predisposes actors to rhetorical moderation and forbearance. But it is impossible to generate these dynamics in television commercials, in political print advertisements and proclamations, and issue-oriented direct mail.

Written nearly 20 years ago, this book is perhaps more meaningful today than it was when Hunter’s pen met paper. Did Obama’s appearance in Baltimore significantly change the level of discourse in the United States? Probably not. But happenings like that have the potential to, so let’s not write them off too quickly.

(By the way, that link about to the “Culture Wars” book is an Amazon Affiliates link. If you buy something, I might make a few pennies off the purchase. You’ve been warned.)

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