January Event – Restoring Civil Discourse After the 2016 Presidential Campaign

The Common Ground for Texans January 2017 event took place in the form of a moderated panel discussion with Mike Ignatowski as moderator. The panel was titled “Restoring Civil Discourse After the 2016 Presidential Campaign”. The three-member panel consisted of executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, Ross Ramsey, Shivers Chair in Communication at The Moody College of Communication, Dr. Roderick Hart, and the chief political writer at the Austin American Statesman, Jonathan Tilove. Many thanks to our panel members and moderator.

There was a very large group at the event and many of them had questions for the panel. I counted eighty nine people early on but more came later. Thanks to everyone who was there, and to everyone who offered a statement and/or question. We appreciate your patience. There was a vigorous but civil back-and-forth between the crowd and the panel. To clarify, in my summary and commentary, I have combined information from the panelist’s opening statements and what was provided in the form of responses to the questions of the audience members.

The panel was initiated with the following quote:

“The great promise of the internet was that it would bring democracies together, giving more people more access to more information, all beyond the control of any single authority. Curious citizens could develop a more nuanced understanding of what was going on; voters would be better informed; we would ferret out the truth from the bottom up and greater freedom would be the inevitable result.

“But somewhere along the way, the democratization of the flow of information became the democratization of the flow of disinformation. The distinction between fact and fiction was erased, creating a sprawling universe of competing claims.”

— “The Problem with ‘Self-Investigation’ in a Post-Truth Era” by Jonathan Mahler in the Dec 27, 2016 issue of the New York Times Magazine

Ross Ramsey started things off with a description of a news day timeline. As Mr. Ramsey put it, “You may have one hundred topics, stories or the more interesting but less likely to be true unbelievable tips” to dig through in a typical newsroom on a single day. Editors worked with journalists to distinguish fact from fiction. “A good editor can always spot the hole in a story” separating fully formed ideas backed by quality information from uninformed ideas that have not been shaped into fact based, newsworthy material. Ten stories made print and three of those ended up on the front page. In an internet world without editors or central authorities ensuring the factuality of posts, tweets, blogs, and other data, our best recourse against the deluge of information at everyone’s finger tips may likely be in pursuing and teaching skepticism, listening and patience in our communities. The journalistic adage Mr. Ramsey offered was, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” He compared a healthy intake of information to the healthy intake of food. Someone makes a personal choice about what to consume, and if it’s all junk food then their health declines. This analogy leads us to organizations like Sleeping Giants who alert advertisers that their products are showing up on Breitbart. They’ve since convinced hundreds of advertisers to quit paying for ads on the racist and misogynistic fake news site. There used to be a time when you couldn’t get milk and fruit with your happy meal at McDonald’s, but their customers viewed it as too unhealthy and marketing changed the menu. Can that happen here? How difficult is it to ask the public to practice journalistic integrities? Some present at the panel argued that it might be too much to ask. It was clear that engaging others in a conversation about a “healthy news diet” and journalistic best practices was a good way to start restoring civil discourse in 2017.

Dr. Roderick Hart stressed that “Fact is something you pay for; opinion is what comes free.” There was a lot of discussion as to what that meant. Mr. Ramsey pointed out that his employer, The Texas Tribune, is a free publication. Most effectively, Dr. Hart meant that this was how you should start your deductive process when deciding what you’re looking at online or in a piece of printed material…Ask yourself, “Do the people producing this product have a background in journalism or a field applicable to the topic? Are they held to the integrity of their work by a paycheck that only comes when they print facts that can’t be refuted or at the very least well founded possibilities that require public attention because of their extreme likelihood?” Dr. Hart pointed out that Mr. Ramsey does in fact receive a paycheck in this way. He also recommended subscribing to a news source that charges for its services. He backed this as the most likely way to get the good stuff.

He also explained what he called a dangerous digital morality:

  • I can be by myself … online
  • I can “follow” others without their knowing it
  • I can think things I shouldn’t be thinking
  • I can say things I shouldn’t be saying
  • I need not worry about the consequences of my actions

By exercising these beliefs people all over the world have become part of a vast network of trolls. Some of these individuals are behaving badly for monetary and political gain. Many of them turned out to be “addicted to the chemical stimulation” of emotionally charged materials that became part of a larger social-network-based disinformation hub fueling a sort of distributed denial of service attack targeting the truth. Instead of a botnet crashing a major website this was a symbiotic rhythm drummed by the clickers, sharers and the creators of “fake news” overloading the public with dis-information in such a way that it fed bias and arrogance fueling the solipsism and hatred of the “dangerous digital morality”. Many of us segregated voluntarily into the private chat rooms that accommodated our point of view. Dr. Hart suggested the remedy is engaging in conversation with individuals who have dissimilar points of view in order to practice and encourage civil discourse. He explained that in 2016 many Americans were introduced to the black lives in America that are constantly at risk and in danger. We learned about white rural Americans that voted for Trump because they felt defeated and forgotten. He explained this as a positive step towards Americans getting to know what their fellow citizens experience differently from themselves and opening their minds to one other. He emphasized the art of listening empathetically when restoring civil discourse.

Jonathan Tilove spoke around multiple aspects of the present-day political environment involving tweets, news, and the use of language. He revisited Dan Patrick’s tweets from June 12, 2016 and discussed how difficult it was for people to accept his findings that one tweet was in fact NOT a heartless comment on the shootings in Orlando on the same day. What became evident was that there was a fringe of non-believers in every political spectrum that were joining the mainstream. “Nobody believes a liar…even when he is telling the truth!” as Aesop’s morals go. Perhaps we have a reached a point where no one believes an honest man either? Is it so difficult now to identify the truth that an investigative journalist with real evidence is hard to believe? Donald Trump has said he has “the world’s greatest memory” and then denies saying what he has said no matter how much proof there is he said it. Sometimes Mr. Trump says he doesn’t remember saying what he has said even though he has “the world’s greatest memory”. In Aesop’s fable, the villagers responded three times to the shepherd boy’s alarm before they stopped trusting his cries for help. In 2017, maybe they only come once. When the President Elect of the United States is a compulsive liar, who do you trust? The answer is no one. Trust evidence. Trust facts. Trust research. Trust the journalistic process of skeptical, unbiased, patient deduction.

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Update on NPVIC

We’re working hard to get Texas to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), and wanted to give you a quick update.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve met with ten Representatives and Senators at the state capitol, and have gotten mostly positive responses. Rep. Richard Peña Raymond (D-Laredo), who submitted an NPVIC bill in 2011, has submitted it again for the upcoming session, which begins on Jan. 10.

The bill has been given a draft bill number. The next step is for it to be filed and assigned its official bill number. We will let you know when we have the official bill number, to ask you to contact your reps about supporting it.

We also understand from Rep. Celia Israel’s (D-Austin) office that she plans to submit an NPVIC bill as well and that Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) is very interested in supporting one. Because making the Electoral College irrelevant is a nonpartisan effort, we are actively seeking Republicans to co-sponsor.

So stay tuned for more NPVIC news in the coming weeks! We’ve also set up a new email list for NPVIC updates — click on “NPVIC Texas Campaign” in the right column of this page. And you can follow us on Facebook.

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Pushing for the National Popular Vote

At our November 13 board meeting, the Common Ground for Texans board of directors voted to advocate for the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), a state-level statutory measure to make sure that the presidency goes to the candidate with the most votes nationwide. We will build a coalition with other civic groups to pressure the Texas legislature, which convenes next month, to join the compact which already has 10 states signed up, plus the District of Columbia.

How does it work? Well, every state exercises full control over how its own electors are selected. Of the 51 jurisdictions that contribute electors to the electoral college, all but two use the “winner-take-all” system, in which the candidate with the most votes in the state get all of its electors. By joining the NPVIC, each state agrees to appoint electors who will vote for whoever wins the national popular vote — even if they didn’t win in that state.

But this agreement doesn’t necessarily take effect as soon as a state signs up. It only takes effect when the states in the compact control 270 or more electoral votes. Because that’s a majority of the 538 total electors, when the compact reaches this level of acceptance it means that the national popular vote winner will also win the electoral college.

So far, the compact includes states representing 165 electoral votes, or 61% of what’s needed to activate the agreement. If Texas joins, our 38 electors would be added for a total of 203, or 75% of the number needed. That’s not counting the contribution of other states which may soon join.

This election year has added to a substantial list of occasions in which the presidential candidate with the most popular votes did not win the election. We know that there’s a lot of partisan energy surrounding this issue right now. But we firmly believe this is a non-partisan issue: such a “malfunction” can happen to either side. If you’ve followed our work, you know that we’ve been interested in the electoral college for quite a while. So we are very well-positioned to make a non-partisan case for reforming it.

We are very selective about choosing issues for our advocacy; we only do it when it’s clearly aligned with our mission to promote voter participation, or clearly in the interests of fairness. In this case, it’s clear that the workings of the electoral college are inconsistent with a fundamental democratic principle: that every vote should count equally. The principle of “one person, one vote” has been recognized as essential in almost every area of constitutional law other than the electoral college. We believe it’s time for the same principle to apply to how we choose our President.

We’re currently working hard to identify like-minded groups and Texas legislators who will support this effort. We’ve created some literature to help with this:

If you happen to know a state legislator who’d like to sponsor a bill for Texas to join the NPVIC, please let us know.

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Fake news? Real news?

Melissa Zimdars

Melissa Zimdars

Have you wondered whether the news you and your friends and family are reading on-line is real or fake? Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication and media at Merrimack College, has compiled a list of Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources, along with tips for analyzing sources.  It can be found here.

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Bob Jensen critiques “The Coddling of the American Mind”

photo of Prof. Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen

Bob Jensen, a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, a founding board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center, and a member of the board of Culture Reframed, spoke at the March 5, 2016 meeting of Common Ground for Texans.  He was asked to respond to a recent article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” published in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic.  According to the article:

A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.  Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance.  Micro-aggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.  Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.

Dr. Jensen challenged the framing and ideology of the Atlantic article, and of the dominant culture, by suggesting a better title: “The Coddling of the Capitalist, White-Supremacist, Patriarchal American Mind.”  He agrees that educators are right to be concerned about non-rational or anti-intellectual factors that can shut down the conversation in a classroom; emotion and politics can impede open inquiry.  He prefers to define political correctness as “a narrowing of the scope of inquiry, especially to avoid certain controversial ideas out of a fear of offending someone, falling out of step with peers, or being disciplined by authorities.”  He postulates that there are two academic units on most campuses where political correctness severely limits students and undermines the quality of intellectual work: business schools and economics departments, where he finds little or no outright challenges to or critiques of capitalism.

Continue reading

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How to Unplug the Electoral College and Eliminate Gerrymandering

otmTwo prominent topics in yesterday’s monthly CG4TX meeting (12 November) were

  • the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact as a way to neutralize the Electoral College, which allows a candidate to win the Presidency while losing the popular vote, as happened in the elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016.
  • multi-member U.S. House districts, in which representatives would be elected by ranked-choice voting, as a means of reducing the effectiveness of gerrymandering.

In a nice coincidence, the same topics were discussed in one segment of this weekend’s episode of On The Media by OTM co-host Brooke Gladstone and Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote.org.

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“How American Politics Went Insane”

Image of Uncle Sam weepingThat’s the title of an insightful article by Jonathan Rauch in the July/August 2016 issue of The Atlantic.

Mr. Rauch contends that a leading cause of the dysfunction of American politics and government is the well-intended reforms that dismantled much of the informal machinery that enabled the system to work. 

Some choice quotes:

  • What we are seeing is not a temporary spasm of chaos but a chaos syndrome [, which is] is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization.
  • Our intricate, informal system of political intermediation, which took many decades to build, did not commit suicide or die of old age; we reformed it to death.
  • Parties, machines, and hacks may not have been pretty, but they did their job—so well that the country forgot why it needed them.
  • [The founders] were visionaries, …, but they could not foresee everything, and they made a serious omission. Unlike the British parliamentary system, the Constitution makes no provision for holding politicians accountable to one another…. By and large, American politicians are independent operators, and they became even more independent when later reforms, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, neutered the Electoral College and established direct election to the Senate.
  • Beginning early in the 20th century, and continuing right up to the present, reformers and the public turned against every aspect of insider politics: professional politicians, closed-door negotiations, personal favors, party bosses, financial ties, all of it…. It was easy, in those days, to see that there was dirty water in the tub. What was not so evident was the reason the water was dirty, which was the baby. So we started reforming.
  • Party-dominated nominating processes, soft money, congressional seniority, closed-door negotiations, pork-barrel spending—put each practice under a microscope in isolation, and it seems an unsavory way of doing political business. But sweep them all away, and one finds that business is not getting done at all.
  • Neurotic hatred of the political class is the country’s last universally acceptable form of bigotry.
  • When [House Speaker John] Boehner was asked by Jay Leno why he had permitted what the speaker himself called a “very predictable disaster,” he replied, rather poignantly: “When I looked up, I saw my colleagues going this way. You learn that a leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk.”
    Boehner was right. Washington doesn’t have a crisis of leadership; it has a crisis of followership.
  • You haven’t heard anyone say this, but it’s time someone did: Our most pressing political problem today is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around.
Posted in Civility in Politics, Moderation in government, Tea Party | Leave a comment

Webinar on Money in Politics, Voting Rights, and the Environment

Lean to the Green slide 1A webinar, “Lean to the Green,” produced by Friends of the Earth, addresses the twin problems of money in politics and voter suppression.

The webinar is designed to recruit participants in the Democracy Awakening event scheduled to take place April 16–18 (Common Ground for Texans is a member of the coalition). From the announcement of the webinar:

Do you feel like the Koch Brothers have too much influence over our politicians, while people like you and me are ignored? Do you wonder how you can change our political system so that it better represents your concerns for the environment, and not just those of corporations and the super-rich?

It has been six years since Citizens United opened the flood gates for anti-environmental mega-donors like Exxon use their deep pockets to poison our planet. It’s now clear that to make progress on the issues we care most about, we need to stand up and fundamentally change the way we do politics — locally and nationally. In 2016 the American people will take to the streets and ballot boxes to ensure a government that serves the many and not just the money!

Join Friends of the Earth and other leading environmental groups in a free online workshop to learn more about the issues and our plan to ensure a government of, by, and for the people — not a government bought and paid for by anti-environmental special interests!

The webinar’s slides are here.


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Austin’s Campaign Finance System and Alternatives

Discussion of Austin's campaign finance system

Sara Smith leads a discussion of Austin’s campaign finance system and alternatives.

On January 16, 2016 Common Ground hosted a discussion led by Sara E. Smith, staff attorney for Environment Texas, on the Austin Fair Campaign Chapter (AFCC), its shortcomings, and possible alternatives to it.  It became clear within just a few minutes that although the AFCC may have been model legislation in the 1990s, it is now obsolete because City Council members no longer run at-large but now run in single-member districts.  Besides being out-of-date, the AFCC is not enforced because the city’s Ethics Review Commission is a volunteer board without the resources to investigate violations fully and promptly.

The current Austin campaign finance system designed to limit corruption includes these features:

  • Individual donor contributions are limited to $350 (adjusted annually for inflation).
  • Total donations from outside Austin are capped at $36,000 (plus $24,000 for a run-off election).
  • Fund raising cannot begin earlier than 6 months before a City Council election (this feature is designed to reduce pay-to-play governance).
  • Self-loans are unlimited.
  • Independent expenditures, typically from outside interest groups, are unlimited thanks to the Supreme Court Citizen United v. FEC decision.  In Austin elections, they do not have to disclose their donors.

The preamble of the Campaign Finance City Code:

The City election process and city government should be protected from potential undue influence by individuals and groups making large contributions to the election campaigns of candidates for mayor and city council. The City election process and city government should be protected from even an appearance of undue influence by individuals or groups contributing to candidates for mayor and city council. The public should have justified confidence in the integrity of its government.

With the goal of protecting city elections and city government from potential or apparent undue influence by individuals or groups making large contributions to campaigns, are there alternatives to the current AFCC?  Would they work in Austin?  If not, what might?

Sara explored several models with us:  Seattle’s Democracy Voucher system; New York City’s small-donor matching system; and Tallahassee’s Anti-corruption Initiative (for a detailed description of each system, see below).

After reviewing these models, what elements did we think were essential in a new Austin campaign finance system? Continue reading

Posted in Austin campaign finance, Clean Elections, Community Conversations, Electoral reform | Leave a comment