March of 2003 was a busy time in America. The U.S. had just sent troops into Iraq to take out Saddam Hussein and his regime. Wisconsin had just elected a new governor, who had recently introduced a bill to close a $3.2 billion budget deficit. The Neverland Ranch became a crime scene.

Wisconsin State Senator Judy Robson had other things on her mind, however. Robson was figuring out a way to keep creepy, lonely men ogling women at health clubs.

Earlier in 2003, health club owner Charles Swayne of LaCrosse filed a lawsuit against Curves for Women, a health club meant exclusively for females. Swayne argued that limiting a health club to one gender was illegal sex discrimination, and should be stopped. Several Wisconsin state legislators disagreed, and introduced a bill explicitly allowing single-sex clubs. (And thereby angering the much-sought-after “swarthy, leering old man” lobby.)

Robson, herself a Curves client, objected to the bill, warning it could set into action a slippery slope that would erode civil rights and lead to discrimination based on race, religion and sexual orientation. “If we allow men to be discriminated against, we are going to allow women to be discriminated against, and that’s a huge step backward,” Robson said at the time.

The bill passed and was signed into law in May of that year. To date, there has been no word on the human rights abuses that have taken place as a result. There have been no marches on the capitol defending the rights of Rubenesque, spandex-clad women. There has been no scandal involving under-the-table political contributions from men seeking to gain membership into Curves clubs. (They would be obvious by the fact they would be crumpled, one-dollar bills that smell of desperation.)

So why would Judy Robson treat this innocuous bill as if it were the end of civil rights as we know it? Why would she feel the need to christen herself the Medgar Evers of jazzercise? The answer lies, in part, within ourselves.

Elected officials often take a beating for their overheated rhetoric. The opposition parties label everything Presidents Bush and Obama do to be the end of civilization as we know it. Often times, political discourse veers into the untoward, in order for opinion leaders to get the most bang for their verbal buck.

In many cases, these political figures are responding to a shift we have seen in the public at large. Simply put, people don’t really know – or care – as much about government and politics as they did decades ago. Despite supposed “historic” voter support for President Obama in the 2008 election, nationwide voter turnout in non-presidential years decreased by 27% between 1966 and 2006. Young people are putting off the things that plug them into political society – getting married, having kids, owning a home – until much later in life.

As a result, elected officials are trying to sell their message to an increasingly disinterested, uneducated populace. A recent study by Yale researchers demonstrated that college graduates today know less about government than high school graduates in the 1940s. Thus, political rhetoric becomes more inflammatory and apocalyptic as elected officials try to grab hold of a shrinking public attention span.

Adding fuel to the fire of intemperate political discourse is the rapid decline of newspapers and reporting. With traditional newspapers hemorrhaging money, many publications have had to purge their staffs of veteran reporters that possessed the knowledge and cynical eye necessary to cover politics. While older, more seasoned reporters would rightfully challenge elected officials on hyperbolic claims, newer reporters may not have the connections or knowledge of the legislative process to challenge this rhetoric. Consequently, politicians feel free to make more exaggerated claims, as they know there is less chance those claims will be challenged in print.

Yet until the citizens become more engaged in their government, they will continue to hear legislators compare scaling back the growth in school property taxes to “taking a meat axe to the children of this state.” (The author of that quote, Senator Bob Jauch, ended up voting for a bill that did, in fact, scale back per pupil revenue increases – someone check under his bed for an axe.) Or they’ll hear the head of the teachers’ union say a budget “returns Wisconsin to the Ice Age,” as if holding down property taxes would force kids to ride wooly mammoths to school.

Political figures that utter such nonsense clearly don’t think much of their constituents. But should they?

-January 4, 2010