Good Day! My name is Ralph Nader. Today marks the first debate—Mandatory Voting: Patriotic or Undemocratic—in a forthcoming series of debates, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Responsive Law, on subjects rendered taboo in political, electoral and main media arenas of our country. The second debate will be on July 8, 2011 with the topic being a Wall Street securities transaction tax.
Information is the currency of democracy. Subjects that are treated as taboo contradict the open debate and discussion necessary to motivate the citizenry toward higher expectations for their society and themselves. That is what a deliberative, democratic society is about.
Anthropologists have documented taboos in all cultures. Whenever taboos’ on significant subjects are pierced the matter closed out by the taboo is opened up for examination and the possibility of change.
Very often in our society, taboos become entrenched controlling processes favoring the status quo and its related powers-that-be. The breaking of taboos in public arenas, for example, slavery’s abolition, women’s right to vote, and the regulation of misbehaving businesses allowing farmers and workers better livelihoods did lead to debate, attentiveness and change in the 19th century.
Similarly, in our time, taboos arising out of advertising and corporate political pressures regarding the dangers of tobacco use and stagnant motor vehicle safety design were broken in the nineteen sixties. Reforms followed that saved lives. Breaking taboos on politically challenging Jim Crow laws and discrimination against gays and lesbians has led to real advances in human rights.
But, in many areas, taboos remain secure in their service to varieties of concentrated power and wealth that cannot tolerate sunlight. Nearly every candidate for public office knows the taboo subjects which are not to publically asserted or even suggested for discussion. Off the table! Self-censorship is part of a politician’s body armor, especially inside a political party’s unforgiving hierarchy. One example—alternatives to the nation’s hard drug policies are off limits by the two major party platforms and their campaigning agendas.
Legislatures are rife with subjects the vast majority of lawmakers prefer to ignore. Until very recently, the two major parties for years took the vast military budget and many on-going, Soviet-era weapons systems as given and non-debatable. As is the GAO’s annual finding that it is unable to audit the Pentagon budget as a whole because its records are unauditable. Imagine the continuing waste of this taboo and its consequential societal harms.
In its turn the media often dittoheads the censorious behavior of the politicians by not asking the inconvenient questions. Note here the Sunday television network interview shows and their adroit choice of subjects, guests and questions and, more significant, the questions not asked.
For the first time before a national television audience (due to the presence of C-SPAN) the subject of mandatory voting is to be addressed in its many dimensions and consequences. We want a flexible debate format that encourages multiple back and forth responses on any single assertion, questions by the debaters to one another and questions from the audience submitted on cards. This will be a ninety minute event.
Now for the debaters! In support of mandatory voting is Norman Ornstein, a long-time scholar on Congressional and electoral subjects. His books and articles have led him to be widely quoted by media for his insights. His recent book The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, co-authored with Thomas E. Mann, reflects his concern about the state of electoral politics. He writes a weekly column for Roll Call and is an election analyst for CBS News. He is a Resident Scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.
In opposition to mandatory voting is Fred Smith, who studied theoretical mathematics at Harvard’s graduate department until he realized that defending markets was his calling. He is the founder and president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market public policy group and international nongovernmental organization in Washington, D.C. Fred Smith also writes and lectures abundantly.
Knowledgeable moderators help make a debate move more precisely and substantively. Mark Green is such a moderator. He performs that function weekly by moderating a national radio program featuring Arianna Huffington and Mary Matalin. At Harvard Law School he edited the Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. As a public interest lawyer, an elected Public Advocate for New York City, author of 22 books, including the bestseller Who Runs Congress? (1972) and the more recent, jolting Losing Our Democracy (2006), Mark Green has been a frequent TV/radio commentator and op-ed contributor to leading newspapers.
It is with keen anticipation that I turn the proceedings over to Mark Green to start this first in a series of national debates on taboo topics..