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DEAR READER: Where do people and politics meet?

Friday, August 17, 2012 | 7:16 p.m. CDT; updated 10:11 p.m. CDT, Saturday, August 18, 2012

Dear Reader,

It’s press the flesh time as the county fairs of July give way to the state fair of August. In September, so the conventional wisdom goes, political campaigns really gear up.

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To what end? The answer is easy if you’re a candidate: to win.

What about the rest of us?

The Missourian Readers Board met Tuesday, and, true to form, the members' comments (you’re inconsistent on when you use “Update” in a headline) and questions (why can’t you tell me in online articles whether they also ran in print) gave me a lot to consider. They are a smart and thoughtful bunch.

That's why I asked them to play along with me on a little test of some findings by a national institute studying whether and how people view politics as a venue for solving public problems.

A bit about the report:

The findings by The Harwood Institute should give pause to politicians and to the journalists who cover them.

In 1991, the institute asserted that people weren’t apathetic about politics — people were frustrated because they were crowded out of the conversation. They weren’t disengaged. They were cut off.

This new study —which will be released in a book next month — suggests that citizens don’t see much use in knocking on the door anymore.

“What we learned in this new study is that ‘politics’ and people’s disgust about it is no longer the central, dominant narrative in America,” Richard Harwood writes.

“Now the endless, often mind-numbing churn of politics lives outside people’s everyday world – operating as if in an entirely separate universe, with its own set of rules, winners and losers, and purpose.”

Twenty years ago there was a strong sense of possibility in improving our communities and country. Today, not so much.

Harwood writes: “We learned that people condemn our individual and collective inability to come together to get things done. They are exhausted by the public recriminations and acrimony that hold our discourse hostage. There is palpable fear among them over their ever-increasing sense of isolation from one another."

“At the heart of these feelings is the deep sense — the belief — that current conditions in America actively undermine much of what is good and right in our society — and in our very selves. People believe we can do better.”

If you want to check it out yourself, you can read the first chapter of Richard Harwood's book, "The Work of Hope."

Without revealing anything about that report, I asked the Readers Board this: When you think about problems in our community or state or country, what do you think about?

Members immediately began to touch on themes from the Harwood study: We are becoming more and more isolated, more divided. There’s a “we” and “they” attitude rather than “us.” Some of the sense of separation is technology driven, they said, in this day when we talk to people over social media rather than look them in the eye. But there’s more than technology at work. There’s a disconnect between reality and perceived reality in a world where you can find any information to agree with your worldview and none you can really trust.

Then I asked: Do you see yourselves in today’s political discourse?

There was a quick and resounding no.

My test was hardly conclusive. I had left less than a half hour at the end of our regular monthly gathering to discuss the topics — not nearly enough time to really drill down and better understand board members’ responses.

But it was a fascinating conversation nonetheless (Again, the board is a smart and passionate bunch).

Harwood’s work two decades ago had a deep impact on a few journalists, myself included. It forced me to confront the way I (then the political editor at another newspaper) saw how political coverage could and should be different. Eventually, at that newspaper and this one, I would come to discourage the horse-race aspect of elections in favor of framing a campaign as a job search in which we, the public, are doing the hiring.

The question I’m left with: What, if anything, does the Harwood study imply for the Missourian’s political coverage?

I'd appreciate hearing from you. What matters to you this election season? What should we do differently from other news media? Which of the problems that you see in society are solvable by government? What issues most inspire you to act? Get in touch at warhovert@missouri.edu.

Tom


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