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’60s radical hears sounds of silence

The electronic mail system brought an intriguing and depressing series of questions recently from Mark Rudd, a 40-year Albuquerque resident, retired CNM math teacher, former member of the Weather Underground, a leader of the 1968 student strike at Columbia University, a former leader of Students for a Democratic Society and now a self-described member of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing.

Has the American population become de-politicized? Rudd asked. Do ordinary citizens think about the common good anymore? Does anyone believe the political process is worth one’s time and energy? Are people so self-involved that they don’t have room in their lives for the public square?

Rudd was reacting to my assertion in the Dec. 11 UpFront that the American people’s response to years of disclosures about the CIA’s torture program has been silence. What followed was an exchange of multiple emails and a two-hour conversation over coffee concerning the state of public engagement in America.

This was before polling organizations published surveys showing a majority of Americans approve of torturing our enemies, or at least feel that torture can be justified. American silence could simply be a sign of American support for torture.

But there is more.

They held an election last month. Hardly anyone came. About 40 percent of registered voters voted in the gubernatorial election. Voter turnout reached 70 percent in the 2008 presidential election.

Rudd points out that about as many people thronged to hear candidate Barack Obama speak in Albuquerque before the 2008 election as turned out to vote in the 2012 Democratic primary election. None of our kids seems to us to be particularly engaged politically. I find myself avoiding political conversations with people I don’t know fairly well.

Rudd thinks declining political engagement is a result of “the growth of the power and size of capital, which controls the government, the media, the defense establishment, every federal bureaucracy and most state legislatures.” He says that “we’ve learned to lead our real lives, our emotional lives in private.”

I sent Rudd a column I wrote three years ago that said political operatives have learned from product marketing experts that you can divide the electorate into tiny collections of people with a shared identity and grievance. Campaign staffs use advertising and other marketing tools that appeal entirely to that identity and grievance.

They cultivate anger and hatred and use that to motivate their supporters to get to the polls. When the election is over, it’s very difficult to pull all of these shards of the population together into a united people ready to engage in the tough work of solving a democracy’s problems. They continue to live in their own world of identity and grievance, I said.

“Maybe only those who see themselves as part of the civic community vote,” Rudd replied. “Everybody else might as well be a John Galt individualist.” He senses the nation has lost hope in its future. “There is almost total confusion on what this country stands for,” Rudd said.

Some of our angst is likely nostalgia. We both came of age in a time of civil rights agitation, the Vietnam War, the draft and Watergate. Politics seemed then like a matter of life and death. It is a lot harder to get worked up over the size of the federal deficit and whether the federal government should require people to carry health insurance.

Brian Sanderoff, who runs Research & Polling, probably knows more about political attitudes in New Mexico than anyone else, so I asked what he thinks.

“People are fed up,” Sanderoff said. “Their expectations have become very low.” The endless din of negative campaigning (and these days someone is always campaigning) suppresses voter turnout and increases cynicism about the process, he said.

Modern political campaigning gives a voter the sense that whoever is elected will be, at best, ineffective “because I just listened to six months of people being called a dog, and I don’t know who to believe or what to believe,” Sanderoff said.

Not only are people splintered; the media are splintered. In the old days, there wasn’t right-wing Fox News and left-wing MSNBC, Sanderoff said. There was network news, which tended to be a little left of center but which strived to be an honest broker. Now people can look for media that confirm what they already believe and which tell them that the other guy’s media, whether liberal or conservative, are not to be trusted. Information becomes suspect.

Those holding or seeking power have found a formula that works, but for how long? Sanderoff says voters hate the negativity in their political lives, they know the political classes are serving up bull, and they want justice in the world. Angry people demand change, as Rudd and I both learned as young men in the time of civil rights and Vietnam. Brace yourselves.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Winthrop Quigley at 823-3896 or wquigley@abqjournal.com. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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