In a clumsy attempt to make a point about our political process, I employed a typical media tactic in suggesting our city’s governing body had made a careless error. There is no way I am going to be able to express how much of an insert-foot-in-mouth-and-keep-pushing event this was for me, completely unintentional, horribly counterproductive, both on a personal level (because I am actually trying to get people to listen to me) and a local level (because I have no interest in undermining the very people that I firmly believe may hold the key to our collective salvation). But if there is anyone that makes a habit of learning from mistakes, I rank near the top. So let’s learn. First, it stirred up a pretty impressive backlash. Why? Because the truth doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter that everything was thought out and vetted by all the appropriate people and fully documented, that there was no conflict of interest, no impropriety. In the world of politics, these are all but irrelevant. All that matters is how well public opinion can be manipulated. Because winning an election has nothing to do with facts or preparedness or ability or creative ideas. We see it all the time. Take an issue, real or imagined, and turn it into a huge thing. Look at Gary Johnson. Was he a good presidential candidate? I don’t think we will ever know. Did the fact that he had a brain-fart bear any relevance to the discussion? Nope. But that doesn’t matter, the reality of the situation has no bearing. It’s not about ability. It doesn’t have to do with how well a person can work with other people. It has little to do with any tangible quality that would make a person effective in the job. The only thing that matters is public perception. Which, in our current “have at it” world is rarely based in relevant fact.
So if the pot can be stirred in a post by a guy with no background in politics on a blog with subscription numbers in the teens, imagine the power of one of our two party juggernauts, with a team of skilled and experienced strategists and psychologists.
That’s right, psychologists. So these are people who study the way individuals and groups respond to various inputs based on their beliefs and social interactions and attitudes. Ask yourself why a political party needs to utilize psychologists. You are probably thinking, “You idiot. Because that is how they can assess the public opinion, and understand what the people want, and structure their strategy.” Ah, that’s right. Because it is important for politicians to know what their constituents desire, since they are representing them and their best interests, right?
Wrong. In theory this would be nice. In practice, it is much more about manipulating public opinion with the primary goal of getting elected. And we are all so set in our ways that this all seems perfectly natural, even necessary.
Personally, I would prefer a system where it is more about results.
My good friend and political sparring partner has talked to me about what it takes to win a presidential election such as the one we just lived through: you have to start with a strong party member, typically one that has built a substantial network within the party itself, one that has the support of the bulk of the appropriate special interest groups. But then comes the marketing: working out how to sell the product to the public. A slogan. A theme. Catchy one-liners that help to define the candidate and resonate with the voters. Then there is the image. And the training, because it is all about carefully deflecting answers to a pre-determined rhetoric.
And money. Crap tons of money. You need the money to get your message to the people. That’s what it is all about actually, getting your message out to the people. This is the American way, is it not? What else could we possibly do?
I think we could sit down and think about the actual goal of an election, and then set about a better way of achieving that goal. That’s right, apply logic. The whole idea…It is so…so…radical!
An election is a process to select a person to do a particular job. That’s it. It’s not a popularity contest, it’s not a media circus, it’s not free-for-all. It is a method of allowing the affected population to collectively make that decision. It is a significant advancement from the days when we used shared – or spilled – blood to determine who had the right to rule. But once we got to that point, we kinda gave up.
Because it all started as this by-the-people-for-the-people thing, there has been this mindset that we don’t have to actually set standards or requirements for who runs for any particular position. Let’s not forget that at the time, there was no consideration that someone might not have an adequate education, because, frankly speaking, we never considered the idea that things would truly be open to anyone. But now, no one is denied the opportunity to serve. OK, so I get that there are certain things we shouldn’t use to exclude someone, like sex or race or religion. But does it really follow that we can’t have a few standards? Is that really what we want?
Joan Foster, the current mayor for the City of Lynchburg (the actual center of the universe, in case you wondered), made a statement at a city council meeting that I won’t soon forget. The discussion was about introducing a new fee on “derelict” or vacant, unattended houses. As all issues are, it’s actually pretty complicated. In a final rally that saw the new regulation through, she invoked a bit of the “Broken Window” theory: even if the new program didn’t generate any revenue for city, the effort itself was a way of telling people in challenging neighborhoods that we cared, that we were working for them, that we were interested in making their lives better. I took that to heart.
So with that in mind, think on this: teachers have significant educational responsibilities in order to be eligible to teach. And yet we don’t require members of our school board – the people entrusted to run the entire system – to have so much as a high school diploma. But this doesn’t matter, right? I mean they all do have diplomas, and more. It wouldn’t make any difference. But that’s not the point. By not making any requirements, we effectively state that education is of no importance. It’s the message that is heard, not just locally, but nationally. We don’t require the president to have a diploma either. And I believe we are all hearing it load and clear: education is not a priority in America.
Let me give you a really solid example of how this is failing us: Betsy DeVos. Now, please, for the love of all that is holy, even if you are a devout Christian and have a deep-seated support of schools that help to instill in children strong moral values cherished by your faith – which I strongly support – step away for just a second and think about the very purpose of public education: to make sure that all citizens have access to a quality education. And that’s not easy. So we have this position in the cabinet of the president that is the de facto leader of our public education system. And that position has absolutely no criteria. None at all. I don’t even know that you actually have to have a pulse. Don’t you think that says something? The leader of the US public education system doesn’t have to meet any educational requirements. None.
So what? Well, now we have a person at the helm who didn’t go to public school, hasn’t worked in the public school system, and has made it very clear that her plan is pretty much to make it as easy as possible for people to flee. That’s right, the captain has essentially sent notice to abandon ship. Nice.
And that’s what you get when you don’t set requirements. Even if the folks today are everything you would want, setting standards both protects the future and sends a message as to what is important to us as a society. And as I have said uncounted times: if you don’t set standards, you have no grounds to complain about what you get.
Of course, the other poster that the DeVos’s image is spread across: money in politics. Her entire agenda has been unabashedly achieved through deep, deep pockets. Some people think that is a good thing, that it is important to allow those with money to maintain a financial stake in the direction of the government. I personally find it atrocious. Piles of wealth do not imply logic, fairness, or ethics. And the only way people or groups are able to buy votes is because campaigns cost money. But if we looked logically at the true purpose of an election, if we took note of the necessary dissemination of information to the applicable voters, we took the time to set out sensible rules for the quality of that information as well as the manner in which it is to be presented, we could create a superior system. One without the influence of misleading media distractions and pointless signs, one incapable of being swayed by financial pressures. A better, more logical, more effective method of putting the absolute best leaders in the top positions and freeing them to function at max capacity. It’s not cold fusion, people, it’s just making information available to the public. In the era of the internet. Not a tall ask.
But for sure it is a new twist. And if there is anything we don’t like, it’s innovation. Oh, we like it if others come out with something cool, some new gadget. But heaven forbid we are asked to do something different. We are all so indoctrinated into the manner in which we have been living, we even liken it to being American. But to me, innovation is the essence of being American. We started out by forging a new direction, by going a way no one else was going. But now, we seem unable to deviate from that original path, a path that never considered many of the changes that have come about in 200 years. And if we don’t take off our blinders and look around, we are just going to follow in the footsteps of the very countries we intended to surpass. And collectively we will stall in the same quagmire of ineffective leadership that has entangled most of the free world.
And so I am left trying to get people to understand the grounds for my insanity. And in my attempts to relay this completely foreign, seemingly treasonous concept, I may make a few missteps. Which is extremely unfortunate, because we have the opportunity to do what we need to do: to lead. We can lead by example, right here, right now. We can set standards and re-imagine the election process. We can be innovative, we can solve our own problems. We can show the world how it should be done. Little Lynchburg: the tail that could wag the dog.