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Rod Watson: Is this the ‘democracy’ we really want students to learn?

Rod Watson

So what do we teach young people about government now?

What do we tell social studies and political science students after the U.S. Senate – AKA "the world’s greatest deliberative body" – followed the House’s lead in passing a massive tax bill with virtually no deliberation, or even time to read it?

How do we pitch American democracy as a model when they see last-minute changes scribbled in the margins as a bill affecting Western New Yorkers up and down the income ladder is force-fed on the public with no effort at bipartisan consensus?

If schools taught a class in hypocrisy, this would be the perfect teachable moment. After all, we learned that:

  • Deficits matter when Democrats are in power, but not when the GOP assumes control.
  • "Redistribution" is a sin when aimed at helping the middle and lower classes, but is the perfect economic elixir when it’s reverse-Robin Hood designed to further enrich the wealthy.
  • The Affordable Care Act was supposedly "rammed through" in a rush with no time for thoughtful scrutiny, yet that months-long process – with hearings and witness testimony – was a model of procedural statesmanship by comparison.

You’d think seeing how the tax bill was passed would make area schools schedule field trips to Canada or Britain, instead of Washington, to show students how government is supposed to work.

But one expert isn’t shocked.

"I think it’s not all that unusual," said Jacob Neiheisel, assistant professor of political science at the University at Buffalo.

"I’d like to think that there was some kind of golden era" when the parties came together and put the public interest first, he said. But if so, it’s long gone.

"It’s increasingly about bringing home wins for your side and losses for the other," he said.

And the flouting of procedural norms is bipartisan. He recalled when then-Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi infamously said members would have to pass Obamacare "so that you can find out what’s in it." Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also pushed through a change in filibuster rules so that Democrats could confirm judicial nominees that Republicans had blocked.

"Neither side has been shy about changing the rules when it benefits them," said Neiheisel, much of whose work focuses on political communication.

So, given that Congress has scrapped the civics books, what does he tell impressionable students to maintain their faith in government?

He gives it to them straight, with a focus on partisan strategy and gamesmanship. He concedes that doesn’t do much to preserve the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" image of politics. But, he said, "I don’t know that they come to me with such a view anymore, either."

Amazingly, though, he still sees a fair amount of youthful idealism. It’s sometimes expressed in students’ love for Bernie Sanders.

But how long can that idealism last as they watch the House and Senate pass tax bills opposed by far more Americans than support them?

How long can it last when they watch representatives disregard the vast majority of analyses that say the bills will explode the deficit, while clinging to a fiction that can only be called "voodoo economics?" How idealistic can they be when those deficits will soon be cited as justification for going after Social Security and Medicare?

Sure, Neiheisel’s UB students may still cling to a bit of idealism when it comes to democracy. But it’ll only take one or two more bills like this to beat it out of them.

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