Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Debate No Longer a Real Part of the Process

This colum originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on February 27, 2012

I really long for the days when government was a place where ideas were discussed rather than methodically executed, when the outcome of legislative sessions were determined during the actual process and not before it, when people went to Town Meetings to decide rather than dictate.

I miss the bygone era when debate – true debate – was a meaningful part of our political process.
We rarely engage in actual discussion of important issues anymore, even in towns where Open Town Meeting is billed as the last vestige of true democracy. Instead, we seem to make immediate decisions on our goals and who stands in our way of achieving them. Then we do our level best to destroy the opposition and their credibility, because we can’t take the chance the majority opinion might actually not ultimately agree with our own.
Recently members of t
he Massachusetts legislature bemoaned the fact no one listens to debate on the floor of the House or Senate anymore. Members give speeches for the record or the cameras, while their colleagues ignore them in favor of rude private conversations or worse yet don’t even bother staying in the room. Most bills are decided in private by the leadership, away from the prying eyes of members and the public. Any debate is strictly for show, and plays little part in the actual decision-making.

Nationally, you can pretty much predict how most votes will go by simply looking at the list of party affiliations. It is a system that allowed a newly-elected senator from Massachusetts to become one of the most influential members of that historic body not by giving his party a majority, but by simply allowing them to consistently stop the opposition from accomplishing anything. Regardless of party, the minority today always seems more interested in being the majority than in representing the true will of the people.

At the small-town level the lack of civility and unwillingness to listen is less, but still all too prevalent. It doesn’t exist everywhere, but rears its ugly head whenever the issues to be decided are personally important enough to those involved. A prime example is the current situation in Foxboro, where local government and politics have been buried in a tsunami of casino gambling possibilities. The usually calm and respectful town political climate has been turned into a churning mess of political maneuvering, with many claiming they must do whatever it takes to implement their own version of what is good for the future of the community.

There is a significant portion of the Foxboro population that does not even want to hear about the possibility of a casino being located in town, despite the fact it could put $10-$15 million per year or more into the town coffers. While this could conceivably lower the property taxes and increases services, they rightfully point out it could have a detrimental effect on the quality of life in the town’s neighborhoods. They are so convinced of the merits of their argument they have urged selectmen to refuse to even contemplate placing the issue before the voters and allowing them to decide.

In other words, they don’t want to debate the actual question at hand. They are unwilling to risk even the chance a majority of voters could pass any proposal put forth. They would rather debate the issue of whether or not to debate the issue. The goal here is to win by never letting the “other side” really get into the game.

This is not a new strategy. It has probably been around since the first group gathered in a cave to talk about rules to govern their society. But today it is more and more becoming the norm rather than the exception. Politics today is all about winning, rather than debating and deciding.

Don’t get me wrong, I like to win. But I also am an admirer of the dying art of true debate. I miss the days when political candidates actually answered questions during debates, when negativity was an ineffective policy, and when people went to Town Meeting because they felt a civic duty to do so.

Ok, now everyone can tell me that I’m wrong. Welcome to the system.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and a longtime local town official. He can be reached at

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