Can't we just talk?

Campaign 2000 has set a record for presidential debates - more than half a dozen before the first caucus in Iowa. Yet, surprisingly, this windfall of political argumentation has done little to overcome voter alienation. Despite seemingly unprecedented opportunities to learn about the candidates and issues, polls reveal voters to be as disengaged from politics as ever. Many appear especially turned off by the debates.

Why should this be so? One reason may be that Americans are hungering for a new kind of political speech, with less debate and more dialogue.

Instead of providing a venue for genuine dialogue, much of the media feeds what linguist and best-selling author Deborah Tannen has called the "argument culture." Too many news and public-affairs programs thrive on polarization and anger. Producers seek to boost ratings by offering back-to-back political food fights - as if hour after hour of heated exchanges between angry guests and callers were the key to keeping viewers glued to the screen.

The dialogue deficit helps explain why the explosion of fresh news sources - 24-hour news networks, Sunday morning talk shows, and political and news Web sites - hasn't necessarily enriched politics. Media coverage too often overemphasizes our differences, instead of moving us toward constructive common ground.

That may be why the media's reputation suffers. Over two decades, the percentage of those expressing a "great deal" of confidence in the media has slid to a low of 11 percent, according to a Gallup poll.

How does dialogue differ from debate? In debate, participants assume they're right and set out to prove each other wrong, to discredit opponents and win the audience. That's why, even with the best intentions, debate can quickly deteriorate into posturing, sloganeering, empty sound bites, and mean-spirited attacks.

In dialogue, we seek points of commonality, and recognize nobody has a monopoly on the truth. As social scientist and pollster Daniel Yankelovich explains in his book "The Magic of Dialogue," successful dialogue requires three ingredients: a willingness to treat your interlocutor as an equal, a commitment to listen empathetically, and a willingness to examine your own and your opposite's assumptions in an objective, nonjudgmental spirit. The art of dialogue is gaining ground in our society. It is routinely used by conflict-resolution professionals to help negotiations between deadlocked groups.

Some communities have experimented with the method in town meetings and other deliberations. An increasing number of businesses and other organizations make successful use of dialogue to improve internal communication. But politicians and media professionals have been slow to catch on.

There are some fine examples of the art of dialogue being practiced in the media today. Bill Moyers is one of the great masters of the dialogue format. Richard Heffner's Public Television program "The Open Mind" and David Gergen's dialogues on the "Lehrer Newshour" are excellent illustrations. In print, Thomas Friedman produces columns in The New York Times that follow an "internal dialogue" process with an intelligent mind coming to grips with opposing sides of complex issues. On the Internet, The Public Agenda, DemocracyontheWeb.com, and The Christian Science Monitor provide a similar nonpartisan, nonconfrontational approach of the issues.

As Mr. Yankelovich writes, such formats function as "proxy dialogues" for the public, helping citizens tease out the implications of varying points of view and move from mere snap "opinions" to a more-complex and considered "public judgment."

The media needs to experiment with conversations in the proxy-dialogue format and with more daily reporting that puts stronger emphasis on common ground and constructive solutions. Already some voters report moving to the Internet to escape the constant bickering and horse-race campaign coverage and gain more-direct access to unbiased information.

Politicians, too, may benefit from resisting the temptation to posture and trade in sound bites. The politician who proves capable of engaging both peers and the public in genuine dialogue is likely to stand apart from those who employ tired debater's ploys. Ultimately, the public isn't looking for a political leader good at winning a verbal slugfest, as much as one who can help the public navigate through complicated differences to arrive at constructive common ground.

*Norton Garfinkle is chairman of The George Washington University Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies. He also is chairman of Oxford Management Corp., a New York investment company.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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