Democracy & Distrust
I recently attended a conference where I was fortunate to hear from individuals from across sectors, from all levels of government, and from different areas of study (health, education, etc.) on the way that data can benefit social change. We all, ostensibly, shared the same belief: data can be leveraged to drive impactful policy solutions.
However, some folks who are data providers (from different Colorado state departments and agencies) stated they were eager to provide data to those that wanted it, but wanted to know the purpose of it first. I genuinely believe that the people in those agencies feel that they can better help someone perform their analysis by sharing the purpose of the data request. However, there is also something problematic when information, which should be provided for the sole reason of transparency, becomes contingent on something. It is this notion that leads to the politicization of information. These alternate realities fueled by cherry-picking data exacerbate the partisanship that we see grinding our political processes to a halt.
I borrow the title for this post from John Ely’s seminal work on judicial review with regards to the Supreme Court of the United States’ role in a changing modern landscape. The title has been rolling around in my head for a couple of weeks now (my first introduction to Ely’s book was in a Constitutional Law class that I took in college), and during Judge Kavanaugh’s Senate hearing on Thursday September 27, it seemed to be the key to every interaction, the basis of every question. Distrust (or the validity/”credibility”) of testimony (both Judge Kavanaugh’s and Dr. Ford’s) was central in a way that was shocking, and disheartening for many watching.
The issue that seems so pressing in our current political moment is that of distrust. Senate Republicans don’t trust senate Democrats — scratch that, most Republicans and Democrats distrust each other, to the point where truth itself is in contention. President Trump doesn’t trust anyone who disagrees with him, and I’m thinking in particular of the firing of James Comey. And why would he trust anyone when articles are coming out regarding the active attempts to undermine his presidency within his staff? Government agencies at all levels don’t trust each other, resulting in territorialism and suspiciousness that is leading U.S. governance to a screeching halt.
In Denver, distrust also teems across different parts of the current local political landscape. Fortunately, the American political system was built to operate under a certain degree of distrust.
Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 51:
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
This goes to show that the federal government was explicitly designed to deal with distrust. Hence, checks and balances, separation of powers, and all the brilliance of the founding fathers in this regard. Yet, a problem arises when the processes that were put in place to manage distrust are ignored and become pantomimes of democracy where party is deferred to above all. This, to me, seems to stem from a particularly malicious phenomena we are dealing with: a distrust or dismissal of facts, and in my area of focus that means data.
The Role of Data in Education
In education, accountability systems face a significant hurdle in this regard. Most people agree that accountability systems, across the U.S. are imperfect — testing is imperfect. The question of which data we should be collecting (more inputs, more outputs, let schools decide, etc.) inevitably seems to be perceived as a leading question. If you want to see how all schools are doing then surely you have an agenda that is political. Requests for greater transparency have been met, in part with concerns for privacy, but equally with concerns that different organizations want data to prove that there should be more charters or less charters, more of one type of thing and less of the other. That individuals and organizations have opinions shouldn’t prevent us from having information that is publicly available. Data systems are imperfect, however the absence of perfect measures, again, shouldn’t mean that we don’t measure anything.
I’m not so naive to believe that data isn’t political. However, the fact that some won’t like what the data say, or that some will like what the data say, isn’t a sufficient reason for the obfuscation of data itself. Transparency is a sufficient means in itself. Facts are viewed solely as political instruments that are blunted or sharpened by the political will and ideology of an individual.
Moving Beyond the Politicization
So how do we get beyond this politicization of information? Can anything be apolitical? We see groups all over trying to reckon with this new reality. For example, Facebook is adding more easily available funding information about all their political ads. However, a recent Brookings Institute blog post piqued my interest suggesting that we require all high school students to participate in competitive debate.
Our solutions need not be so prescriptive: debate participation is not the only solution (as a former High School competitive debater). There are meritorious tenets of debate that improve our capacity to question truth, arguments, and opinions in a respectful and fact-centered way. The key takeaway, though, is that the way forward, as we often find, is within our schools themselves.
We owe it to ourselves, and to our future, to ensure that all students’ are well-equipped to think critically about facts. The way forward may be more debate, but I think it also lies in strengthening civic education, encouraging student involvement in policy making, as we see in student boards of education, and the quality of schools all over the country must rise, in order to ensure that the next generation can elevate public discourse to a higher level. We must empower students so that they have the skills, confidence, and franchise to respond to the needs of the moment. The stakes have never been higher.