Americans in the past seven years have faced the following: a terrorist attack, a war of terror, which has created fear and suppression for many and has led to the suspension of habeas corpus and the use of widespread torture on foreign “enemy combatants” and even Americans, two wars (one in Afghanistan and the other in Iraq), two stolen presidential elections (with fraud occurring in Florida and the Supreme Court in 2000 and fraud occurring in Ohio in 2004), the violation of their civil liberties through the PATRIOT Act and other expansions, the illegal outing of a CIA agent, the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, a rise in the number of people who suffer from lack of healthcare, a subprime loan scandal that has led to vast amounts of home foreclosures, insecure employment, a rise in gas prices as oil companies gouge people by including “fear” of what may happen to oil in the price of their product (a “fear” created by our government), and the ignorance and inaction of this Bush administration to global climate change even as polar ice caps continue to melt before their eyes. Yet, the past years have not moved a clear majority to action but instead have paralyzed, sedated, and created a fatigue in the way Americans respond to disaster and horror by turning these types of situations into acceptable and allowable things. Americans have been shocked into submission. While some have risen to defend this country and even stepped up to end the war and bring about impeachment of Cheney then Bush, the actions have not been successful because such actions face a barrier in America. That barrier is the restrictions that have been created on political discussion and thinking in America. In a country where its leader has dropped from a 90% approval rating in 2001 to 24% in 2007, the type of thinking and mentality that surrounds politics in America has curbed political participation, created avoidance of broader political situations, and made it impossible for political change nullifying any catalytic effect the disapproval of the president may have had on change in America.
Political participation has been often thought by experts to occur as a result of motivation but disagreement exists on what that exact motivation is. Since humans tend to pay attention to “only a few stimuli at any given time,” many experts tend to think that people participate based on “a desire to maximize rewards and minimize costs” (Krosnick & Miller 507-508). However, the maximization of rewards and costs fails to clarify the psychology of what makes Americans feel the need to take action. A “desire to avert political threats” that may threaten a citizen’s self-interests or political interests better justifies or explains what drives a citizen to participate in politics.
The idea that threats drive political participation is a basic idea originating from Darwin’s theory of evolution, which postulates that organisms can only survive if they avoid predators and find food. When hunting for food, organisms must be able to recognize the threat predators pose (Krosnick & Miller 509). Under this theory, when faced with changes of an economic, social, or political nature that are undesirable, humans will fight to preserve the status quo that is threatened by the undesirable change. While people respond to the threat of policy change, they are less likely to respond to the opportunity of policy change.
Humans who are threatened by political candidates or policy changes are more likely to become activists than those who do not feel threatened. Sen. John McCain’s Republican candidacy has moved more to act and oppose him than Sen. Barack Obama’s Democratic candidacy has moved Americans to get behind Obama and call for a repudiation of the terrible policies enacted by George W. Bush during his presidency. While a window may be open for real change, Americans fear that if the opportunity to push for real change is pursued a threat against Obama will be created allowing McCain to win.
Therefore, in contrast to policy change threat, policy change opportunity can often have an “inhibiting effect on activism” (Krosnick & Miller 510). Less effort or work is put into making strides towards achieving opportunities than making strides towards defeating a threat because when people believe others are working with them to achieve the same goal, the feeling that others are working towards the same goal creates the sense that a person can allocate resources toward another goal or no goal at all. Never was this more apparent than when Michael Moore released his documentary film Sicko over the summer proving that policy change opportunity has little effect.
Like the situation of impeachment, a policy change opportunity, and like plans for taking back America, which would create several policy change opportunities to avert several policy change threats, Michael Moore’s film Sicko presents an example of how Americans respond to policy change opportunities. Sicko explains the reasons comprehensively why health care should not be run by corporations any longer and Moore used the film to go around the country and to news stations to spread the word on a bill in the House of Representatives, H.R. 676, which would give every American not-for-profit single-payer health care and would remove the problems Americans are having with preexisting conditions and co-pays, premiums, and deductibles. Moore’s notoriety garnered much attention for the film in the media. Unfortunately, after breaking the media barrier, Moore could not break through the government and corporation barrier, which stunts American’s imagination and does little to reward American’s faith in either of the two major political parties. Americans did not do nearly enough to fight for a change in policy when the opportunity presented itself and so, the Democratic Party said “no” dampening people’s hopes and regulating the imagination of what could be done to fix the health care crisis in America.
Not only has the Democratic Party regulated the imagination of the people for change on health care but the Party has also regulated many other discussions on public issues since taking control of Congress in 2006. The current situation Americans are in now where discussion on the war and impeachment are limited thereby inhibiting change is a result of the Democratic Party regulating the public sphere, a sphere that was filled with vibrant and robust dissent prior to the 2006 victory. Nina Eliasoph defines the public sphere as “the realm of institutions in which private citizens can carry on free and egalitarian conversation, often without issues of common concern, possibly wielding themselves into a cohesive body and a potent political force (11). This “realm of institutions” gives people the power to determine the kinds of questions that should be addressed publicly. However, when parties or institutions of government extinguish broad discussion necessary for continuing to push for political change, volunteer organizations and activist groups know how to change their tactics so that they have more chance of acquiring the change they desire.
Volunteers and activists chances of acquiring such change under this type of political pressure often leads volunteer and activist organizations to frame the issues in a manner that will obtain the most audience or garner the most assistance from the Democratic Party (Eliasoph 250-251). Often, organizations assume that they must win battles in order to create debate and increase political participation. For example, the anti-war movement turns to taking state-wide or local actions to promote an end to the Iraq war and defend anti-war activists being persecuted in their area instead of focusing the struggle on what can be done on the federal level because in a local context, the movement is capable of achieving victories. The fight for change becomes a fight focused on dealing with what’s wrong in one’s backyard without truly addressing how that backyard is being affected by bigger forces.
A sense that the focus must be limited to issues in one’s own backyard in order to make a difference permeates throughout volunteer organizations all over America (Eliasoph 12-13). Activist institutions all too often choose to avoid the large, federal/international, and political issues and instead opt to pursue small, local, and non-political issues not only to be more effective so that they can cultivate connections. When volunteers and activists are able to successfully stand up for Americans, volunteer organizations feel they are more able to “be good caring members of communities,” which can increase membership. Sadly, by limiting the context of which issues are pursued, organizations limit the ability of members to learn about the wider world and inhibit the “sociological imagination” or “quality of mind” that Americans should possess so that Americans can properly tackle widespread issues in America (Eliasoph 12-13).
Much of America lack the imagination needed to understand why certain facts or events matter, which complicates failures to pursue policy change opportunity or make “think locally” plans more effective. This lack of imagination contributes to the failure of Americans to understand the interconnectedness between their personal life and the political world. C. Wright Mills, cited by Nina Eliasoph in Avoiding Politics, proclaimed, “Humanity desperately needs to cultivate this ability [to see the connections between personal life and the political world] in order to keep from feeling powerless and lost in a complex, overwhelmingly large global polity” (12-13). Thus, when activist groups limit the discussion on politics, they render themselves ineffective by creating feelings of powerlessness and disillusion.
Under powerlessness and disillusion, many groups of volunteers or activists limit the discussion out of a “fear of disagreement.” Since most if not all activist groups are voluntary, leaders and organizers often fear the dropout of members will result if heated debates are allowed to transpire (Eliasoph 249). In a democratic society, however, the disagreement and ability to articulate arguments for and against policies is central to the survival of democracy because it keeps people involved and committed to the system in which they live in. Wide-ranging discussion can in fact lead to the formations of bonds between people and make associations stronger. Fear is not a basis of democracy and is one way in which groups can promise themselves that they will continue to face the same problems on a daily basis that they seek to put an end to.
Not all volunteer organizations fear discussion and limit themselves to a minimal amount of discussion. When broad political discussions do occur in groups across America, most of the time the members opt to speak differently when presenting themselves to people outside of the group (Eliasoph 4). For example, in the case of the media, Nina Eliasoph found that volunteers tended to speak as if they were “panicked moms” or “self-interested property owners” (4). What was so stunning about this is that the volunteers in group meetings spoke about the importance of taking action for “future generations” yet when given the opportunity to further the cause they were volunteering for, volunteers had gone out and framed discussion on the issue in a way that defended one’s own involvement in the campaign for change (4). This situation proves that many Americans create a habit of limiting the “circles of concern” with which they care about either out of good manners, out of fear that being outspoken will hurt the cause, or because one really is self-interested when it comes to the issue (4). The reality that Americans impose limitations on their political discussion shows that plain talk must be freewheeling not just in private but also in public if people are going to develop the mentality to really solve problems and take back their nation.
As Nina Eliasoph plainly states on political talk in America, “only plain talk, between citizens, can knit the bonds necessary for a humane society, and reveal the often morally unsavory assumptions hidden in the markets/bureaucracies (9). This type of talk will cultivate community and allow citizens to think about the wider world and create the context for which Americans must think within in order to win back a nation that is supposed to be powered by them. Unfortunately, this talk cannot happen as long as government, corporations, and media continue to make it impossible to discuss politics in anything approaching a meaningful way (Larsen 175).
The establishment government with the help of the media and corporations has successfully “turned its back” on empiricism or the formation of ideas from experience especially through sensory perception (Larsen 176). The establishment government together with the media and corporations has taught Americans how to think and feel and led Americans to become blind to the situations in America, which damage their lives further each day. Having manufactured disconnect and consent, the American mind seems “to have been unplugged in regard to certain things, unable to see them” or “even to entertain the possibility of them” (176). This has much to do with, as Eric Larsen would say, the “Age of Simplification and Deceit”, which government, corporations, and the media have ushered in over the past few decades.
This “Age of Simplication and Deceit” has influenced how people describe the unfamiliar and label it as “unreal.” Dating back to 1970 when the Kent State killings occurred, people shocked by the event regarded the incident as “unreal” (Larsen 175) Declaring the event to be “unreal” was how Americans explained to themselves that the event was true and that they could not believe the event had actually happened. Americans have regularly seen the “unreal” since Bush took office with the attacks on 9/11, the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, Hurricane Katrina, the melting of polar ice caps, etc. Yet, for most Americans, this unfamiliar has become not true for them and “people have simply begun refusing to believe the evidence of their senses. Faced with intolerable ideas or with intolerable acts, people in very large numbers have begun simply denying them, declaring them unreal and thus with a word, diminish the ideas’ and events’ importance in history.
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