The Virtual Agora

The ancient Greeks had the agora – the open marketplace, where, along with buying the day’s zucchini and feta and bad wine, the affairs of the day were discussed, and the big questions pondered. That’s where we get the concept of the open marketplace of ideas – the key element of democracy itself. You need a venue, a place where the people – the Demos in the word Democracy – can hash things out and decide who has the best argument for doing this or that, or for doing nothing for the time being. The people decide, in that open marketplace of ideas. And eventually good ideas get implemented, somehow, and crappy ideas that were ridiculed don’t, because everyone laughed at them. Thus Ancient Greece is called the Cradle of Democracy, where the idea got started that the collective decision of the people determined what we’d all do. At least that’s what we’re all told. It’s odd that this pure original democracy is associated with grocery shopping, but maybe not. We still talk about whether we buy someone’s idea or not, kind of like it was produce, perhaps zucchini. And politics is, for us, essentially the marketing of ideas. Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, said of the decision to go to war in Iraq at that precise time, just before the 2002 midterm elections – “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” Politics is now defined as mass marketing.

And it probably had to be that way. This isn’t tiny Ancient Greece. We can’t work things out in the agora – there are too many of us now. And we have no agora anyway. What we have is talk radio and the cable news networks, where we hear the arguments for doing this or that, or for doing nothing, as things are just fine and you don’t want screw everything up. On the cable news channels the guests – legislators and policy makers – come and go, and the talking heads laud them or ridicule them, calling it challenging them and asking the tough questions, then tell us what we, collectively, should really do, if we had any common sense. Talk radio bypasses the guests – you just get the marketing, distilled in an entertaining sales pitch. You might argue that talk radio is actually like the Greek agora, as people do call in and have their say. But those calls are carefully screened and the callers, like Rush Limbaugh’s dittoheads, are essentially shills. A shill pretends to have no association with the seller and gives onlookers the impression that he or she is an enthusiastic customer, and that’s considered somewhere between bad form and basic fraud. That’s not an open exchange of ideas, so, no, we don’t have anything like the agora.

But we do have mass marketing. Fox News begins and ends every segment with the assertion that they are Fair and Balanced – buy your produce here, not from someone with an agenda. CNN keeps saying that it is The Most Trusted Name in News, so don’t buy from any fly-by-night operation that regularly screws up or doesn’t have the resources to get things right. And MSNBC now begins and ends every segment with its promo – MSNBC, The Place for Politics. They want to be your primary vendor for that – no need to shop elsewhere – and, in rotation, Maddow and Olbermann and Mathews and Chuck Todd pop up and say MSNBC is that Place, each with a little personal story or a nice smile. Actually all of this is kind of like being in the open marketplace with cheese vendors and fishmongers left and right.

But the interesting spot is from Chuck Todd – NBC News’ Chief White House Correspondent and Political Director, and Contributing Editor to Meet the Press, and now an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins. He’s now co-host, with Savannah Guthrie, of “The Daily Rundown on MSNBC” – weekday mornings for an hour. And in his spots you can see him say how much he loves politics, and that he wishes every day was Election Day – he just loves the ins and outs of winning and losing, and what makes a winner and what makes a total loser.

And of course that’s the whole problem, as that has nothing to do with policy, what we, as a nation do, or don’t do. Chuck Todd loves marketing, and doesn’t think much about the product at all, if at all. But in the real world, where the economy is still in tatters, with millions unemployed and uninsured, losing their homes and seeing their kid’s school fail, the product – the zucchini perhaps – matters quite a bit. Policy does matter, and the person who implements that policy, however charming, or sleazy, is a secondary matter. Todd asks us to be in awe of masterful salesmanship, or to consider how that other fellow couldn’t sell a cheeseburger to a starving man holding a twenty dollar bill – that’s what he covers, and covers well – who’s up and who’s down, and the trends. The other stuff will sort itself out.

But every day is not Election Day. Those we elect to represent us and decide policy – policy that may be life and death for many of us – need to work out what to do next, for the common welfare, for national security, and maybe to get the economy halfway working again. They already won, and now it’s time to do something useful. But of course they’re in perpetual campaign mode – marketing themselves – to stay in office, so maybe Chuck Todd is covering the real world, of marketing. That’s what those who elected do.

And we thought we’d elected them to participate in a virtual agora for us, representing us. There is the House and there is the Senate, where these folks are supposed to exchange ideas in open forum – to argue in an agora of sorts – and hash things out and vote on what to do next. You can’t have over three hundred million people in togas in the sunshine debating the merits of public policy, after all. This will have to do. And of course it doesn’t work – it’s a marketplace of all vendors and no customers, and no products. And Chuck Todd reports on the positioning and marketing strategies.

Of course that’s why nothing gets done, and perhaps why, on Thursday, February 25, President Obama went all Greek on us and tried the old agora thing – debating the merits of public policy in open forum with all parties, or at least the representatives of all parties, to see if things could be worked out. It was a toga party without the togas.

But it didn’t go well:

President Obama declared Thursday that the time for debate over health-care reform has come to an end, closing an unusual seven-hour summit with congressional leaders by sending a clear message that Democrats will move forward to pass major legislation with or without Republican support.

Democratic leaders face a heavy lift in reviving their stalled bill, a process that would involve intricate parliamentary maneuvering and carries no guarantee of success. But Obama signaled that if meaningful GOP cooperation does not materialize in the weeks ahead, he is ready to proceed without bipartisan support and risk the political consequences.

“The question that I’m going to ask myself and I ask of all of you is, is there enough serious effort that in a month’s time or a few weeks’ time or six weeks’ time we could actually resolve something?” Obama said. “And if we can’t, then I think we’ve got to go ahead and make some decisions, and then that’s what elections are for.”

It seems that you can’t have an open debate on the merits of public policy if one side is unwilling to debate public policy, because they have to market their product:

Republicans said that they share Democrats’ assessment that the health-care system is broken, but that they view the pending legislation assembled by Democrats as deeply flawed. They questioned fundamental elements of the Democrats’ approach, including whether it is appropriate for the government to set standards for coverage or require individuals to buy insurance.

They don’t much like public policy. People should do what they want, and maybe there should be no public policy, really, even if Obama did want to play Socrates in the Agora:

Obama played the role of active moderator for much of the event, calling on participants to speak and interjecting when he disagreed on specific points. He chided members of both parties for lapsing into campaign rhetoric, but he saved some of his most pointed jabs for Republicans, his voice heavy with sarcasm when he accused GOP speakers of using “good poll-tested language” to describe the Democratic plan as “government-run health care.”

Yep, what started a year ago as a good-faith effort to find broad agreement “quickly devolved into a partisan grudge match” – and got stuck there. This “attempt to bring an air of civility and openness to the debate” was never going to work.

See Steve Benen here:

When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took a turn to speak, the subject at hand was supposed to be insurance reform.

But McCain decided to skip the topic, and instead whine bitterly about process. He complained about not having enough transparency; he complained about things President Obama said during the campaign; and he complained about “unsavory” deal-making in the Senate.

The president, appearing a little annoyed, explained, “We’re not campaigning anymore. The election’s over.” Obama added that “we can spend the remainder of the time with our respective talking points going back and forth. We were supposed to be talking about insurance.”

When McCain, appearing even more acrimonious than usual, said, “The American people care about what we did and how we did it.” The president replied, “They do care about it, John, and I think the way you characterized it would get some strong objections from the other side. We can have a debate about process or we can have a debate about how we help the American people at this point. And the latter debate is the one I think they care about a little bit more.”

Obama tried to focus the discussion on substantive policy matters, and Republicans responded with talk about process, legislative mechanisms, and the number of pages in the bill – a sales pitch for their side, but of not much concern if you have no health insurance and you know you are one accident or illness away from bankruptcy and living in the streets, or if you have health insurance and know the same thing. And yes, McCain “was given a chance to raise meaningful concerns and debate the policy in earnest.” But he didn’t.

Benen also adds this:

Republicans aren’t willing to negotiate in good faith, and have literally no interest in working towards a compromise on reform. Democrats have been willing to make all kinds of concessions, but the one question the GOP can’t answer is, “Name one thing you don’t want to see happen, but would be willing to accept as part of a compromise.”

They don’t get the whole agora thing, but then neither do political reporters, and for that Benen turns to Politico and Carrie Budoff Brown:

If President Barack Obama really wanted to show he’s serious about winning over Republicans on health care reform, he could offer up some key concessions at Thursday’s summit, like caps on malpractice awards or allowing insurers to sell across state lines.

And if Republicans wanted to reciprocate, they could at least acknowledge the congressional scorekeepers are right – the Democratic plans cut the deficit in the long term and rein in health care costs.

But that would assume either side is willing to do this.

Heading into Thursday’s summit, there’s been a lot of talk on both sides about how they’re the reasonable ones, willing to meet in the middle – and it’s the other side that’s to blame.

But the reality is, both sides have been responding to the overwhelming incentives to play to the home team, and to tailor their positions to seek partisan advantage and political gain.

But Benen says this isn’t “reality.” It seems to be nonsense:

The Politico piece suggests Obama hasn’t been willing to entertain GOP-friendly concessions on medical malpractice and insurance sales across state lines.

We already know this claim isn’t true. Not only is the inter-state competition provision already a part of the Democratic plan, but President Obama very specifically said he’s open to compromise on malpractice if Republicans would be willing to give on something else. They refused.

Yep, they did – they would concede nothing. There would be no give and take. And that means the whole agora thing was futile all along, as Benen argues:

I’ve lost track of how many concessions Democrats have made to move this legislation to the middle. At this point, not only are the public option and Medicare buy-in gone, and single payer taken off the table before the discussion even began, but the legislation is loaded with Republican ideas. The package is so moderate, far-right Republicans, by their own admission, agree with 80% of it, and the legislation is almost identical to what moderate Republicans were offering 17 years ago.

Can Carrie Budoff Brown, or anyone else, name a single provision on which Republicans have shown flexibility? I suspect not.

But Benen is okay with that, in perspective:

They’re the opposition; they’re expected to oppose. The GOP doesn’t want to pass health care reform; it never has. The problem is with the expectation that a huge Democratic majority can’t even vote on its agenda unless a failed and discredited Republican minority says it’s acceptable.

We seem to have two different ideas on how things work here:

Dems are in the majority, and they’ve practically begged Republicans to work with them, even putting the entire process on hold for months as part of a futile search for even a little GOP support. To seriously argue that Dems have been “playing to the home team” and “tailoring their positions to seek partisan advantage and political gain” is just absurd.

One side wants to hash out policy, and the other side wants to impress Chuck Todd. And the AP reports that the networks quickly decided we’re just not Greeks:

By 2:30 p.m., at the opening of the session’s second half, Fox News Channel had shifted to its studio show (occasionally showing a mute picture of the summit on a portion of its screen) and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer was reporting on poll results. Both covered it fitfully in the afternoon. MSNBC moved on to the Finland-Sweden ice hockey game from the Olympics. PBS aired “Between the Lions.”

This was bad television:

Like any opinionated cable host, Obama sometimes sharply dealt with those who angered him. One eye-opening exchange came when his 2008 election opponent, John McCain, criticized deal-making that bloated the current health care bill.

“We’re not campaigning anymore,” Obama told McCain. “The election is over.”

It became the most-remembered sound bite of the day, as it was featured prominently on ABC and NBC’s evening newscasts. On television screens, it harkened back to the presidential debates with cable news showing split screens of the two men. The exchange lit up the blogs.

“Genius!” wrote one Facebook member, Bruce Stevenson.

Okay, to be fair, this is from David Bauder, AP’s television writer, and he’s just doing his job. But he does catch the essence of things:

McCain later appeared on Fox News with Sean Hannity to say he thought Obama looked “very, very uncomfortable” in responding to his criticism. “The president was uncomfortable because he knows it was wrong,” said McCain. “It’s not the way that he promised.”

The president also criticized Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House’s No. 2 Republican, for piling a copy of the Senate bill on his desk as a prop to make the point that changes should be simplified. “Those are the kind of political things we do that prevent us from actually having a conversation,” he said.

This was a long, hard slog for Obama. He was trying to have a policy conversation with folks who were posturing and posing, to gain points with the media, like Chuck Todd, and angry voters. Let’s solve problems? What was Obama thinking?

And no one is used to policy conversations:

Cable TV producers have only a limited attention span, and the summit was barely an hour old before MSNBC was muting the sound and interviewing political strategists and talk show hosts about what they were seeing. In other words, they silenced the unusual sight of the nation’s leaders in the same room publicly talking about a huge issue so they could present what their pundits were saying about them.

Fox spent the most time presenting uninterrupted coverage before the lunch break. Afterward, the network cut back sharply following it after reporting that its online poll found 90 percent of respondents saying the event was just “political theater.”

“I don’t think a single mind was changed by watching this,” said Fox Sunday host Chris Wallace.

How quickly did Obama’s summit become simply grist for the cable talk mill? During one break, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Roland Martin that if the summit were part of the Olympics, how would he score it?

“I wouldn’t score it,” Martin replied. “That’s part of the problem. The important thing is that they’re talking.”

At least Roland Martin didn’t ask Wolf Blitzer if he were really Chuck Todd in disguise.

And there was this:

On MSNBC, Chris Matthews said it “bugged me a little” that Obama, who was addressed as “Mr. President,” called lawmakers by their first name. But he theorized that Obama’s “lack of protocol” may have showed Congress “who’s boss.”

Matthews doesn’t talk about policy. He has his insurance. And Kevin Drum offers this:

First, Obama’s big closing issues were covering 30 the million uninsured and doing something about preexisting conditions. Those are smart choices because (a) they’re popular issues with the public and (b) they’re poison for Republicans. Their plans simply don’t (and can’t) cover a substantial number of the uninsured because you can’t do this in a private system without federal subsidies, and that requires tax increases. Likewise, solving the preexisting condition problem within a private system leads you inevitably to a mandate and subsidies, which requires a tax increase. They’re stuck.

Second, his basic message was a promise to consider some changes to his current position and a challenge to Republicans to do the same instead of merely insisting on starting over from scratch. “If we saw movement, significant movement, not mere gestures, we wouldn’t have to start over,” he said. In other words: cut the talking points and get serious about addressing real problems.

Will that work? Drum says that depends on what you think “work” means:

There’s no chance of Republicans making any concessions, of course, but Obama’s stated willingness to consider their ideas might help win over public opinion and stiffen some Democratic spines. But that largely depends, I think, on how the press ends up playing this. Stay tuned.

Don’t bother. Obama hosted a sort of Greek agora thing – let’s hash things out and decide what we can do for the people, those we represent and who are really hurting – and the media saw it as just another who-won who-lost psych-game, where someone comes out lookin’ good, as they say, and you can declare a winner, and a total dweeb of a loser. It seems we don’t do Greek, and the Republicans know it.

See Paul Krugman:

So what did we learn from the summit? What I took away was the arrogance that the success of things like the death-panel smear has obviously engendered in Republican politicians. At this point they obviously believe that they can blandly make utterly misleading assertions, saying things that can be easily refuted, and pay no price. And they may well be right.

But then maybe we don’t want things fixed. That whole concept is Greek to us.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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