My Greatest Fear About the Education Voucher Debate

I often measure the worth of the book I am reading by how much it inspires me to write about my feelings. I have only reached page 23 of Barak Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and already I have a lot of things to write about. Senator Obama’s insights into political decorum are particularly poignant for me as I contemplate the vitriol that accentuates the current debate over Utah public education vouchers.

As I began to read Senator Obama’s book, I already knew that I was going to disagree with him on several issues: health care, global warming, welfare, and many others--because he had the courtesy in the beginning of his book to tell me. I’m sure as well that he and I would have diametrically contrasting positions regarding education vouchers, but I’m also confident that we could sit down over a cup of hot chocolate and have a respectful and respectable conversation on the subject.

Which is more than I can say for a plethora of Utahns on both sides of the issue. It is the height of irony that a state that has one of the highest rates of religiosity of any of the United States can have such a rancorous, irreligious division when it comes to our debates and disputes about vouchers and other political issues. Here’s one of many statements that I have agreed with so far in Senator Obama’s book.

What’s troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics—the ease with which wed are distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our seeming inability to build a working consensus to tackle any big problem.

What I fear about the Utah voucher debate is that advocates on both sides of the issue are so fearful of losing the debate that they have take as their weapon of argument the same acidic brand of politics that hatched such political debacles as the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings and the Swiftboat Veterans for [so-called] Truth. I fear that each camp is so fearful of their opponents’ bludgeon that they feel it necessary to mount their own pre-emptive strike of acerbic “shock and awe”. I fear that when the smoke clears, the activities of the voucher battlefield will have inspired an even more vitriolic baseline for the future of our political warfare.

In the big picture, which side achieves victory in the voucher debate matters relatively little. It instead pales in comparison to our most pressing political needs: (1) to seek to paint our political opponents as something other than our mortal enemy, and (2) an ability to seek first to understand their positions and points of view.

I’ll bet you know someone who disagrees with you about education vouchers. But I’ll also wager that you’ve never seriously tried to understand their perspective about them. It’s clearly uncomfortable when we experience the rejection that is our unreciprocated attempt to understand our opponent’s point of view. With nearly every such attempt, however, the fear of ultimately turns into the exhilaration of a gained mutual understanding. I know. I’ve experienced it.

So, as soon as you get a chance, find one of those someones that you know disagrees with you about education vouchers (or about anything else for that matter). Then listen to them. You’ll be glad you did.


  1. As an active participant in the voucher debate in the Utah blogosphere I can say that I've been surprised at how fair the debate has been. There have been a few examples of hyperbole and name calling but on the whole those who are most active in the debate from both sides have stuck to the merits of the issue.

    Some great examples of posts with excellent issue based debate can be found at Utah Taxpayer, Steve Urquhart's site, Green Jello, Utah Amicus, and even at my site :-)

    The only time I personally have felt any bitterness up to this point in the debate was when Republican legislators and the Republican AG attempted to take the ability to decide this issue away from voters through questionable legal maneuvers. The Utah Supreme Court slapped them down forcefully and now the plan is being debated on its merits.

    Thanks for this post. I share your fear about the debate devolving into name calling and pettiness. Here's hoping we can all keep our heads till the voters finally have their say on vouchers in November.

  2. November is still a ways off, but I really don't see how the voucher people stand a chance. The latest Dan Jones poll indicates the pro-voucher voters are outnumbered 2-1 by people like me who are just waiting for our chance to be heard.

    IMHO, it was a mistake to railroad this through the way they did. Most Utahns don't want our state to become a laboratory for every right wing theory.

  3. I agree with your call for more decorum in our political discussions. However, the factors Sen. Obama mentions are not new in politics. Read political texts from four hundred years ago, and you will find that there was no shortage of smallness in the face of significant challenges. Painting one's political opponent as sub-human has gone on for milennia. In fact, my study of history leads me to believe that people exceeding political smallness and stepping up to the true challenges at hand has actually been rare. That doesn't mean that we should stop striving for this ideal.

    The reason people engage in unsavory, harsh, and/or noisy political tactics is that they work -- at least some of the time. I wish we as a people were not so easily swayed by such tactics, but the fact is that people do it because they are rewarded for doing so. If we as a people were to quit rewarding these tactics, they would disappear from our political landscape.

  4. Frank:

    One of the things I like about the way you post, is that you don't assume that people who disagree with you do so out of malevolence. It does take alot of emotional maturity to agreeably disagree. Many people define themselves so strongly by their beliefs, that any challenge to that belief feels like an attack, and often the response to that perceived attack is excessive.

    There is no doubt that the civility of our discourse in our country has declined. Politics is now fought by professionals, who while projecting their candidate as statesmanly, also through supportive third parties unleash the attack dogs. And as Reach Upward mentioned, it often works. However, it can also backfire as it did in Enid Greene's first election, Karl Snow's ill-fated run against Bill Orton as well as Wayne Owens trying to label Robert Bennett as deep throat.

    However, it did seem to work for the Swift Boat Veterans.

  5. I think Jeremy has hit on an interesting phenomenon. He sees the voucher debate in the blogosphere as being relatively fair and focused on the merits of the issue. On the other hand he cites some of the acts of the legislature and the state AG as being politically manipulative.

    I have to say that most of what I have seen in the blogosphere has been a proper debate. Unfortunately the actions of the legislature, the AG and the school board have been about petty maneuvering. It almost surprised me that the courts decided correctly to make the vote in November meaningful.

    Why would the blogosphere engage in meaningful debate when our elected officials just try to outmaneuver each other?

  6. David: Because we're actively checking each other and calling each other when we engage in bad behavior. The Utah blogosphere has become a kind of self-regulating organism with most of us trying to keep on-topic and away from the petty crapola that normally passes for business as usual.

  7. Jesse: Any ideas on how we could get all of politics to operate more like that?

  8. Start electing each other? It seems that wired individuals are going to be the ones leading the charge. We're the ones that have a good grip on the transparency thing.

  9. Jesse Harris for Congress 2010!!!


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