COAST CITIES — Partisan politics. Legislative gridlock. The decline of civil discourse. What caused these problems? And can they be solved? Beginning Sept. 6 at MiraCosta College, an array of local and national sources will weigh in on these questions at a free two-day event titled “Democracy in the Balance? Getting Beyond the Shouting.” As a preview, several of those who will be at the event were asked to offer their take on the rise of gridlock and partisanship.
“Throughout American discourse, there’s always been a divide,” said Emmy-award winning filmmaker Brian Malone. “That divide has gotten greater in recent years. And both sides are as guilty as the other.”
At both nights of the event, Malone will be screening “Patriocracy,” his new documentary featuring insights on gridlock from a cast of prominent senators, congressman, journalists and academics. Based on the interviews, he found many of the problems contributing to the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. can be traced to the media, especially cable news stations that cater to viewers’ political views.
“The partisan, 24/7 media primarily exists to reinforce preconceived notions,” Malone said. “People seek out stations they agree with, and those stations continuously present information that doesn’t conflict with their demographic’s view.”
Citizens too need to step up to the plate, Malone said. Chiefly, people should make more of an effort to understand political views that differ from their own. And instead of being swayed by talking points, everyone should spend more time focusing on policy decisions and politicans’ stances. But Malone is less-than-optimistic that these changes will happen any time soon.
“Things might have to get worse for people to wake up,” he said.
Malone believes the downfall in civic discourse at the national level has trickled down to local governments. He recalled recent school board meetings in his hometown in Colorado, where “the tone and rhetoric has been elevated to unheard of levels.”
The League of Women Voters North County San Diego, a nonpartisan group that’s hosting the two-day event, started a yearlong study more than 16 months ago to examine political gridlock. Passionate about the topic, the group was moved to roundup experts they’ve come into contact with and hold an event.
Martha Cox, the co-chair of the League’s civil discourse committee, said the event will encourage polite discussion, which she hopes will ripple out to other political forums.
“Civility is on a lot of minds right now,” Cox said. “This timely topic needs to be addressed.”
Of the studies, articles and books on civic discourse the League digested during its yearlong study, Cox said author Bill Bishop was particularly illuminating.
In his 2009 book “The Big Sort,” Bishop uses demographic data to describe how Americans have separated themselves into homogenous counties and neighborhoods. As Bishop documented, the percentage of landslide counties, where one party received more than 60 percent of the vote in a presidential election, has more than doubled over the last three decades. The result of so many like-minded people grouping themselves together? Groupthink, an intolerance for other views, and consequently, polarization.
“The book describes in great detail how many of our problems are deep-seated,” Cox said. “Entire communities are at the five yard line and won’t budge toward the 50. We want to change that with healthy dialogue.”
Cox also said the media plays a role. In the last few decades, the line between editorial news and commentary has blurred, she said.
“There’s more emotion in the media, when it should be more focused on facts,” Cox said.
Leon Baradat, professor emeritus of political science at MiraCosta College, said talk shows on cable news largely explain the spike in rhetoric. The shows give voice to extremes on both sides of the aisle, leaving those with a more moderate view out in the cold, he said.
“That’s good for ratings, but bad for democracy,” he said, adding that claims on the talk shows are rarely fact-checked.
Baradat will serve as a moderator for a panel discussion that will take place on both nights of the two-day event.
On a related note, Baradat said Super PACs have contributed to the sea of misinformation. Super PACs, along with their affiliated nonprofits, can raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations and unions, among other organizations. While Super PACs are forbidden from working directly with candidates they support, they’re allowed to advocate for or against candidates by purchasing television, radio and print advertisements.
“There’s a lot of noise to cut through to get to the truth,” Baradat said.
Baradat said the growing divide between political parties is understood by most. But he noted fewer people realize that the parties haven’t moved equally toward their extremes. According to several recent studies, political polarization is asymmetrical. Over the last 25 years, Republicans have moved farther to the right than Democrats have moved the left, the studies say.
“Each side is to blame when it comes to not working together,” Baradat said. “But the more extreme elements of the right have made compromise particularly difficult. It’s similar to the 1960s, when more extreme elements of the left made finding common ground more difficult.”
“Deep partisanship has been cyclical throughout our history,” Baradat added. “Hopefully things reverse course and get better.”
“Patriocracy” will screen Sept. 6 at MiraCosta College’s San Elijo Campus at 7 p.m.
The night’s keynote speaker is former Rep. Mickey Edwards, who is featured in “Patriocracy” and will sign copies of his new book “The Parties vs. the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans.”
In addition to the 7 p.m. screening, the film will also play earlier at 12:30 p.m.
“Patriocracy will also be shown Sept. 7 at 7 p.m. at MiraCosta College’s Oceanside Campus. Following the screening, Malone will discuss the film.
A discussion panel will be held on both nights.