_On a balmy Friday afternoon, I had the pleasure of hearing two very public minds discuss and debate the state of contemporary America. The participants — Joe Scarborough, the host of Morning Joe on MSNBC, and Jeff Sachs, the outspoken director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute — were affable and smart; one could tell they are close friends. After a brief introduction by each, the conversation was mainly about politics. As a broader solution to our combined climate/energy/resource challenge will be helped or hindered by how our Federal government operates, I listened with keen interest.
Using the example of the US Senate’s recent failure to pass the universal background checks for gun purchasing legislation, despite the fact that over 90% of Americans support it, Sachs and Scarborough examined the extraordinary influence of lobbying and special interest groups in the American political system. Although they hail from opposite sides of the political spectrum, both speakers agreed that the power of these groups is so pervasive that the democratic essence of the American Government has essentially vanished. Throughout the conversation, they advocated for drastic changes from the status-quo, changes that would effect all areas of American life and politics–gun control, health care, fiscal responsibility, media, education, and infrastructure.
Despite the depressing idea that the American Government is too corrupt to function, both men seemed optimistic in the future of the United States. From the conversation as a whole and several interesting follow up questions, I extracted three of the most important themes — ideas that they believe are necessary for the rejuvenation of our country.
1. Decode the incomprehensible
Probably the longest thread in the conversation was about money: taxes, the federal budget, the deficit, the bailout(s), and the 2009 stimulus package. Another long tangent was about America’s healthcare and the passing of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. For both issues, Sachs and Scarborough agreed that the complexity of the budget and of healthcare is so extreme that it is impossible for the layperson to truly understand what is going on or to advocate for him or herself within the system.
The biggest impediment to reform is the fact that most of our problems are made to be so vast and complex as to be incomprehensible to anyone but the experts. Oftentimes, the data itself is made available under a banner of governmental transparency, but that doesn’t mean any of that data is easy for anyone to understand. This does not have to be the case. If these systems are exposed, their machinations made transparent, and the information made readily understandable, the average American would be able to gain a greater understanding of how his government works, would have a voice in how these systems function, and would be able to immediately object if something looks questionable.
The future of America does not lie only in transparency, which in many cases we already have, but in transparency coupled with information education — allowing every citizen the opportunity to understand how his or her government works and giving him the ability to hold it accountable.
2. Embrace Social Media as a mode of Political Empowerment
Although the name of the event was “America’s Future,” most of the discussion was about the state of contemporary America. Fortunately, towards the end, an audience member asked how an average citizen, realizing the corruptive lobbying groups currently embedded in Washington, should go about changing it. Now, with Occupy Wallstreet, the Arab Spring, and Barack Obama’s remarkable grassroots campaign still fresh in our national conscious, I might sound like a broken record on this one. But, as Sachs and Scarborough both attested, social media is the newest and most effective tool of political empowerment.
With the growing realization that a candidates’ platform and speeches are written by national strategists, their elections bought by corporations, and, once they’ve made it to Washington, their votes cast by lobbying groups, it is extremely necessary that a new crop of politicians are brought to the capital. Sachs and Scarborough praised social media as a platform for aspiring and inspired politicians to project their voice to a larger community, to form enthusiastic grassroots campaigns, and to take that momentum all the way to Washington. Only with the influx of these new, community-minded politicians will the entrenched lobbying groups have to retreat.
This point also builds on the above point. New media has the potential to allow for everyone to gain understanding of how our government works and at the same time allow for everyone to have a voice in that process. In the future, everyone will be a politician but no one will need to be political.
3. Use Common Sense to Find Common Ground
The most wonderful part of the conversation was the fact that although these two men stand on very different sides of the political spectrum, Joe Scarborough being a proud conservative and Jeffrey Sachs a vocal liberal, they managed to agree on the fundamentals of all the topics they discussed. Whether it was gun control, the stimulus, or education, they managed to agree on some basic steps that could be taken to fix the problems that plague our country.
I left the talk optimistic that in increasingly polarized America there is something we can all agree on, or at the very least, agree to disagree upon — it just takes a little common sense and the willingness to do the right thing. We can no longer afford division. We can only hope that an increasingly vocal and informed public will begin to hold their government accountable for the change they want to see in the country.