New Year's Resolutions for Improving Political Dialogue

As the new decade dawns, plenty of institutions -- from gyms to retailers to churches -- will be trying to capitalize on the resolution spirit. The advertising copy promises: Now's the time to join, to run, to buy. Our usually frenetic pace slows, and we're all but bullied into reflection. We take a look at our waistlines and credit-card debt, and promise ourselves that this year, no seriously, this year will be different.

But what if we used that energy not for self-improvement but for national renewal? If there's anything that urgently needs a makeover, it's the state of political dialogue. When we look back over the last year, it appears that our civic conversation has hit a new low. Think of Rep. Joe Wilson screaming "You lie!' during President Barack Obama's health-care speech, the birthers preying on ignorance and fear, the tea baggers disrupting town hall meetings across the nation, and almost any so-called debate between television pundits on one of the many shallow cable news shows. We've become a nation of screamers, not thinkers.

I'd rather live in a place where there isn't such a wide gap between those who don't feel like they had a civic voice at all and those who spend their social capital shouting and pointing fingers. A place where the average news consumer is more interested in learning about education reform for all American children than the seventh Brangelina baby. A place where quality conversations about the day's most pressing political issues actually take place -- in living rooms, classrooms, boardrooms, and the halls of Congress, alike. A place where legislation is created without ego-stroking and grandstanding. A place where minds are opened and changed.

So what can we do to create this more perfect union? Here are a few ideas, some of my own and some from smart, civic-minded friends, about the kinds of New Year's resolutions we could all adopt to improve political dialogue in the coming year:

Pop the partisan bubbles. This resolution, of course, hardly needs belaboring. Watching health-care reform unfold was a good lesson in how far we have to go in figuring out how to talk across the aisle. But it's not just our legislators who failed us over and over. We often failed ourselves. Where were the spaces for thoughtful citizens -- Republican, Democrat, and everyone else -- to have intelligent, respectful conversation about what kind of health care would serve us best? It seemed as if the only sorts of public dialogue going on mirrored the worst of bipartisan rancor.

We need to find spaces -- both physical and online -- to explore these complex issues, learn from one another, and then go advocate for our perspective with our representatives. These days, it so often happens in the reverse -- we latch on to the party line or our favorite blowhard's half-hatched argument and then seek out spaces where we can parrot this point of view in peace. That's not constructive; it's cowardly.

And on the topic of breaking the partisan stranglehold, pay less attention to individual senators. Andrew Marantz resolves: "Senators should be treated as units of a legislative body. As soon as they see themselves as something else -- celebrities or holy vessels of entitlements/pork, powerful and worthy of respect in their own right, that's when you start to see grandstanding a la Lieberman or Snowe." Instead, we ought to hold our representatives accountable without feeding their egos or fanning the flames of partisan drama. We can communicate that we want legislators, not instigators.

Listen to deep thinkers rather than fast or loud talkers. Our 24/7 news cycle has created a climate in which the networks are constantly trying to find the loudest, most controversial voice that they can in order to spike ratings. Don't be drawn into the hype. Support news producers that value in-depth reporting, under-covered stories, judicious framing, and thoughtful experts. Watch TED talks and Big Think videos to get inspired by intellectuals who are more interested in offering the world original and solution-oriented thinking, rather than selling salacious books or taking pot shots at their ideological opposites.

It's not just more depth that we need; it's more diversity. Demand that a broader range of voices are heard throughout the media landscape -- both mainstream and alternative. The quality of our public debate is directly related to the range of bright minds and inspired speakers that contribute. Just as a sports team is strengthened by players with a wide range of talents and training backgrounds, our political debates benefit from diversity. Right now, our political landscape is the equivalent of a baseball game with 20 older white men all trying to cover first base.

Click strategically. Andrew Golis, editor of a soon-to-be-launched news blog at Yahoo, reminds us: "What you click is what will be funded. Web media is a page-view basis, so if you want celebrity slideshows to get the bulk of media funding, click on those. If you want investigative reporting and deep thoughts, click on that. We live in an era without subsidies for good info, so we have to think about our consumption accordingly."

As we click more thoughtfully, we can also curb multitasking and slow down judgment. The vast technological improvements of the past decade are both a blessing and a curse, as anyone facing a post-vacation e-mail inbox can attest. We must reclaim our capacity to focus on one issue at a time, truly devoting our full attention to understanding it -- nuances and all -- before opening three other windows (Facebook, YouTube, TMZ be damned). It may feel strangely unnatural in a world where shallow attention has been normalized, but it's wholly necessary with so much at stake.

So this year, let's forgo the diet books and the closet overhauls and instead focus on getting more of what we really need: a country whose citizens and government leaders engage in high-quality dialogue about education, national security, health care, the climate, and all of the other issues that define this tumultuous time.

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