Professional columnists address democracy at Beckman, Krannert

Online Poster

Online Poster

By Nate Sandstrom

Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page and New York Times columnist David Brooks spoke Tuesday in a pair of lectures titled “Challenges to American Democracy: Dueling Perspectives.”

The two-part lecture series highlighted what the columnists thought were the obstacles that democracy is facing and how to address them.

An informed and determined electorate that holds its government accountable is the key to preserving democracy, Page said in his lecture at Beckman Institute.

He said “infotainment” has taken over in the United States media and that many members of the media feel the need to make politics more entertaining by promoting conflict and debate. This style of news helps political machines manipulate people by oversimplifying issues, which results in a less informed public, he said.

He said the nation’s media is no longer fulfilling its duty, adding: “The media have a valuable role in bringing us together.”

The advancement of technology, Page said, has allowed people access to more information and to gather and distribute information themselves. He cited the increase in documentaries and Web sites that influence politics.

However, he said, the vast amounts of information available does not translate into a more informed public. In fact, he said it has led to an increase in propaganda.

Page said the government also has a duty to promote democracy by providing a system of fair elections, citing the disproportionate number of blacks that were not allowed to vote in 2000.

Brooks followed Page’s lecture Tuesday at Krannert Center, speaking on the polarization of today’s political atmosphere. Brooks said segmentation within the population has developed, leading to a hostile atmosphere in which Republicans and Democrats do not interact. This is especially apparent geographically, he said.

“The red parts (of the United States) are getting redder and the blue parts are getting bluer,” he said.

With more opportunities to commute, Brooks said many Americans can freely choose where to live, and most people choose to live near those who are like them.

He said there was also a large division between professions; professors and lawyers were more likely to donate to Democratic campaigns while professionals in the corporate world were more likely to donate to Republican campaigns.

He also said more media organizations have framed their coverage in a partisan way.

“You can now choose which Web log, newspaper or television show will confirm all your opinions and tell you how right you are,” he said.

Like Page, Brooks argued that party identification had caused Republicans and Democrats to view each other in narrow stereotypes. Most people do not choose a political party because of their issues, he said. Instead, they choose a political party because they interpret the other members as more like them and then take on their ideas.

The division between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, he said, had left a large group of moderate citizens unrepresented. He said most Americans can reach a common ground, but because of the hostile atmosphere, little is accomplished.

Brooks added that unless the United States worked to spread democracy around the globe, the nation cannot be secure.

“Helping people achieve those inalienable rights (of democracy),” Brooks said, “and implementing that theme around the globe and at home is the challenge for the next generation.”

The lectures were part a three-day academic conference during the inauguration of the University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Governance. It was also during the centennial anniversary of the Department of Political Science.

Page, a 1989 Pulitzer Prize winner, is an author and regular panelist on The McLaughlin Group and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, as well as Lead Story on BET and a commentator on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday.

Brooks works as a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Atlantic Monthly. He is also a frequent panelist on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

A grant from Richard Cline, former CEO of Jewel Companies, Inc. and Nicor, helped fund the new center. The center will be open to leading students of public affairs, philosophy, sociology and other disciplines for programs on the struggles and significance of democracy, said Jim Nowlan, director of the University’s Civil Leadership Program.