Wise people (namely, Jennifer Groves) often say that you shouldn’t discuss politics or religion in a professional environment. Since most of the stuff I post about on this blog is work-related, I suppose this post is a little unwise. Those who know me on Facebook know that I post a fair amount of political stuff there and would rightly assume I’m pretty progressive, so I’ll try to leave my own biases out of this post.

A few weeks ago Maryland Senate President Mike Miller sent out a survey via email. I’m not sure how I got on his mailing list, especially since he does not represent my district. Still, I think it was awesome. The survey asked for respondents to weigh in on a number of things that will be coming up in this years’ legislative session. I have no idea what will be done with the survey information but I think it is a great idea for legislators to be reaching out to their constituents in this way. Why don’t more people do this?

I decided I wanted to share the link on Facebook. In the 2012 presidential election cycle, there were a few places that political discussions relating to Maryland politics took place but I could not find those same ones anymore and the ones I could find were ghost towns. I found one, however, aptly called “Maryland Politics”. Topics there appeared to be balanced in nature, though one very active participant tended to editorialize quite a bit when posting news items. Still, it didn’t seem too bad, at first. Since the general atmosphere tended to lean more toward my own political tastes, I stuck around. After sticking around it became more and more obvious that this group functioned more and more as the group creator’s own biased sounding board than a venue for actual discussion.

Naive, I know. Politics in this country is ugly and populated by candidates who run around chasing opinion poll after opinion poll, bloviating about whatever is the hot topic of the day that day and issuing reductionist statements that can fit into soundbites of appropriate size and simplicity so that they can be regurgitated by talking heads on the news channels frequented by their target demographic. This idea was parodied with laser-sharp accuracy in a Family Guy episode titled It takes a village idiot, and I married one:

Though clearly more intelligent than her opponent, Lois’ campaign falters as Mayor West proves more politically savvy than she is while Lois bores voters with detailed plans to improve the city, Mayor West garners support simply by avoiding answering questions and acting in a patronizing manner. Brian, observing that “undecided voters are the biggest idiots in the country,” advises Lois to dumb down her campaign. She soon discovers that she can generate support merely by dropping controversial terms such as “Jesus” and “terrorists” in meaningless ways, and by answering questions about her policy plans only by saying “9/11.” She wins the election, and continues to use fear tactics to raise funds for cleaning up the lake.

It seems like a chicken & egg scenario. Are the voters idiots? Are politicians just playing to our baser instincts? As I grow older I feel like we’re careening toward a world where Idiocracy is more like a documented prediction than a comedy movie. I think we should expect more out of our politicians, our peers, and ourselves.

Everyone has their biases, whether they admit to them or not. I have my own. But believing in and spreading baseless, deceptive, or wholly untrue allegations is unethical, in my opinion. Each voter deserves the right to understand and assess each candidate and each political issue based on actual facts, logic, and data: Voting records, position statements, recorded statements in the media and on the debate floor. Refusing to consider, discuss, share, or even acknowledge factual information is deception. Ultimately each person needs to determine which candidate fits our own preferences for what makes that candidate the right choice. Thankfully we live in a time when researching this information has never been easier. The for-profit news media is not a reliable source of such information. While my fellow liberals are quick to dismiss Fox News as biased, the other media outlets are just as biased. Even CNN and MSNBC have been accused of conducting a media blackout of Bernie Sanders.

You can and should avail yourself of resources that are better than the news media

(Mostly) Unbiased resources exist, mostly in the form of non-profit organizations who identify themselves as “watchdogs” or “think tanks”. Some of these can still be biased, depending upon who founded them and who funds them. Here are a few things to look out for:

  • If they’re focused on one political cause then obviously their positions and coverage will have a myopic focus on that cause. They will support those who support them and vilify those who do not.
  • If they’re founded by a single person or group of people who lean toward a single political ideology, so will the organization as a whole. Is the board full of ex-staffers from the Clinton administration? That organization will lean to the left. The converse would be true if they’re all from the former Bush administration.
  • If their position papers and blog posts would fit in well with a clearly-biased mainstream media source like Fox or Daily Kos, then they’re biased.

Resources I’d Recommend

Of the above, the Sunlight Foundation is particularly important based on the tools they provide for accessing important data.

Obviously making use of some of these resources involves a little more time and energy than flipping on your favorite news channel. You owe it to yourself to take the time to at least peruse a few of the fact-checking websites to verify whether what you’ve heard in the media is true or not. Come election day, vote based on facts, not rhetoric.