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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Shutdown Showdown: Why social media + political discourse = "unfriending"

This week, the world was reintroduced to the dysfunctional family which is the U.S. government. And while both sides of our elected officials took to their talking points (and allegedly to their office minibars) and the airwaves to make their case, we, the people, hashed it out with #hashtags and Facebook rants. Political discourse is vital to any democracy, but the unmediated world of social media, much like the online comments sections, is clearly punching above its weight. 

So how did we get here? It's obvious that the seeds of hostile political discourse were sown long before this latest government shutdown. Some would point to March 19, 1979 when the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (more commonly known as C-SPAN) began cablecasting the U.S. House of Representatives live to 3.5 million households. Before that, the deal making and House floor across-the-aisle negotiations that made legislative history were covered by the reporters who were in the chamber. But something happens when the words of your two-minute floor speech flow, unfiltered, to the voters in your congressional district. It's a little like giving a toddler a baseball bat and a 5-lb bag of sugar and walking away, confident that all will end well! With C-SPAN, not only can you hear one Congressman address an opposing Congressman as "my friend", but you can also see the tight-lipped sneer on his face as he's saying it! At times, it becomes the political equivalent of the comic actor Norman Fell's "Three's Company" breaking of the fourth wall, also known as "Ropering", when he would deliver a line to the character "Jack Tripper" and then gaze directly into the camera at us with that sly smile on his face! Some days I'd watch the congressional shenanigans on C-SPAN and I'd laugh to myself and say, "Classic Roper!!"

And then, on June 1, 1980, CNN had it's first broadcast. Soon, other 24-hour cable TV news channels joined them, and then came the Internet, bloggers and the death of print journalism. We have been re-wired to want things faster and, with the arrival of Twitter, shorter, and so it's little wonder that talking points have replaced thoughtful deliberation. Talking points are the Cliff's Notes of politics, and they have become a crutch for politicians. We have elected officials who think that they don't have time to read the bills they vote for or vote against, so they choose, instead, to read the talking points on the bill. These same talking points will then be used in the press release that their office will release shortly after the member makes their floor speech (also prepared using the talking points) ahead of their colleagues so that the national media spotlight will fall on them first, which will (fingers crossed) get them invited to do a two-minute live interview from some cramped studio in a congressional press gallery. This interview, really, is just another recitation of the talking points. And waiting in the wings, like Mama Rose, is the member's press secretary, Tweeting out to the masses the 140-character version of the talking points as well as a heads up on when the interview will air. And there we sit, watching the interview, listening to the recitation of the talking points, and off we go to Facebook where we go off on each other.

Ask yourself this question: Is it worth it? Is it worth the time and the tension and the trouble to turn the virtual space that's usually reserved for the exchange of cute kid pics and updates on what you ate for dinner into a segment of "Hardball"? If the fires of political engagement burn so hotly within you then read the legislation, learn the voting record of your elected officials, and volunteer with your party for get-out-the-vote and election day activities. This government shutdown has many human faces who are living on the financial margins, so donate time, money and food to your local food pantry. Facebook and Twitter may create virtual community, but we humans who use these tools must create real community. So let's leave the talking points to the talking heads - we've got more important things to do.

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