A Reformed Reformer

This article first appeared in Pajamas Media.

Recently, there was a little-noticed gathering of graybeards in Oklahoma, designed to place the political world on notice that things have gotten too partisan. I say little-noticed because, while the collected firepower in the room was sufficient to garner some approving mentions in the press, especially from the handwringing contingent, the statement issued by this group appears to have come and gone without leaving much in the way of ripples. Good thing, too.

Long ago, I led an initiative of which the Oklahoma summit would no doubt approve. Armed with hundreds of thousands of dollars from a foundation, I spent multiple election cycles trying to get opposing candidates to agree to simple ground rules for their campaigns and then stick to them. From my vantage point now, with no vested interest, I can say that in all honesty we had almost no success. Of course, we trumpeted battles won and progress made, and built an impressive book of press clipping — and we did so in sufficient volume to get investment from other foundations too.

Still, when all was said and done, the chief bit of learning from this lengthy effort is that candidates’ campaigns are not interested in “fighting fair” or working in “bipartisan” ways. They are interested in winning, so their candidate can then go on to govern.

It may be true that I just botched the job and someone else would have led the project to a more bipartisan glory. But I was not alone in my efforts. Across the nation in the late 1990’s, well-meaning nonprofit organizations tried to change the way election campaigns seemed to be going. For every small victory (a public financing system here, or an instant-runoff voting system there), there were far greater setbacks.

I’ve come to believe that, by and large, people are not interested in “bipartisan” approaches to “solutions” to our nation’s “problems.” They are interested in having the feeling that they are being led and led well, by someone who cares about their concerns and will honestly do their best. This was the political genius of Bill Clinton and of the team behind George W. Bush. They made 50% plus one feel that way.

By contrast, this is something that the technocrats who have spent long years in the halls of power do not seem to get. Having made policy for so long, they seem to believe that ordinary Americans want solutions, when what they want is leadership. This was the failure of Senators Kerry and Dole, who in retrospect seemed more to be applying for a job in government, than they were fighting to lead a nation.

People who do a lot of thinking about Democracy are worried sick about things these days. They see a hyperpartisan landscape that has choked government’s ability to act. They see an electoral system that favors style over substance. They see mean-spirited campaigns filled with veiled (and not-so-veiled) name-calling. They see a primary schedule run amok, with a yearlong presidential campaign already underway.

But I see a system that has responded well to the desires of the ordinary Americans who do not tune into C-SPAN and care little about the full text of White House press conferences. This is an America that mistrusts a government that “acts,” that bases any number of day-to-day decisions on an intuitive sense of “style” (I do not mean fashion), and that appreciates a good fight.

At the end of our early primary season, we will have two candidates poised to do their best to convince us that they, and not their opponent, will lead us best. And people will decide — some by reading the white papers, but more by listening to the repeated sound bites.

Those sound bites, and bumper stickers, and slogans say more than the concerned would care to admit.

Long ago, I stopped “attending films” and instead decided I preferred to “go to the movies.” Around that time, I stopped basing my cinematic decisions on reviews but instead used movies’ own advertising to influence whether I would see a particular show. After all, a lot of thought goes into deciding just what aspect of a movie to highlight, in order to drive audiences. You can get a pretty good idea of whether you want to see something by reading its ad. My grand experiment has by and large worked very well. Even with the dogs (and there are a few), I am rarely surprised by what I get.

This is what the presidential candidates are trying to do. So far, they have done a pretty good job and the choices I face, along with the nation, are clear. Each party has a small handful of competing directions and will choose from among them. Those two will battle it out.

I hope they really go at it.

You Lose

This article first appeared in Pajamas Media.

My middle school daughter has announced that her new favorite president is Calvin Coolidge. I do not believe it is due to his business-first approach to the Roaring Twenties. My daughter, herself a girl of few words, admires “Silent Cal” for his terseness. Would that this quality were shared by more people, in more arenas.

Instead, ubiquity and volume appear to be the chief attributes of words these days. The dictates of our respective markets call on us to be prolific, even beyond our abilities. “Content!” screams the machine, with little regard for its fodder’s taste or nutritional value. Book writers must create and re-create their sequels, at ever-increasing length. Nonfiction publishing houses feel the urge to flood the market in response to major events — within four to six months. Politicians must debate into the double digits, not because more debates are better, but because each niche, be it geographic, demographic, or ideological, demands its own morsel.

In consumer- or popular-culture, this is merely burdensome, as I choose between TMZ or PopSugar. But in public life it matters.

While many attitudes toward politics have shifted in various ways over the last decades, at least one thing has remained constant. Citizens feel less and less able to find relevant information. They report that they “can’t find out” what various candidates think about issues that matter to them. But how can this be? They’re talking so much, after all, what about all those debates?

The problem is that increasingly much of what is said is, civically speaking, junk food — devoid of nutrition. As the content-machine requires more and more, the ratio of junk to nutrition decreases. It becomes harder and harder for people to find out what they need and want to know. Yes, it’s out there. Just buried, or hidden in plain sight.

No great revelation: It’s a cycle that feeds on itself. More outlets need more material with which to fill their maws.

Creating “content” has become a job in its own right. This is in itself a capitulation. We need to reclaim lost ground, at least when it comes to the public square. Writers must see themselves as contributing to important discourse, not creating a product that may later get “re-purposed.” Politicians and pundits must have something to say, not simply a need to speak. The organizations that serve all this “content” up to eager viewers, listeners, and users must return to the now-quaint view of themselves as leaders with a duty to enrich the public square and not starve its soil.

It’s exactly who we have deposed whom we can most use long about now: editors.

A friend of mine, an editor at a newspaper, once told me that the role of an editor is to find out what the reader ought to know, and get them to want to know it. This, of course, seems anathema to the radically democratized world of information in which we now live. I can imagine the comments now, accusing me of being league with MSM. Indeed, I myself am, as a “blogger,” the beneficiary of today’s lowered barrier of entry into the “public voice” market. So I say this knowing I am pointing a finger at myself.

Yet it is this old-fashioned approach that we need in order to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio. So many new and useful voices have entered the public square (many on this site), at the same time as so much static. The lost role of editor can help me find quality, and help bring meaning back into public life.

In fact, the role of editor is needed not just in the news business, but throughout public life. We need people with backbone who will say no, put on the brakes, shoot down dumb ideas, and generally be grown-ups.

Looking around, there are so few grown-ups on the scene.

One of the Silent Cal anecdotes that had my daughter laughing out loud involves a dinner party. It is said that a young woman (in some tellings it is Dorothy Parker) found herself seated next to Coolidge. “I bet my husband,” she reportedly said, “that I can get you to say more than two words.” To which came the swift reply: “You lose.”

President Calvin Coolidge is also said to be the last president to write his own speeches. He regarded them as his chief works of art, laboring over each word, cutting, molding. Presidents now have speechwriters — in fact, office holders down to mayor now have them. Candidates now answer to a dozen and more “chief strategists,” all of whom has a bright idea for what ought to be said and how. It all adds up to more, more, more, backed by less, less, less.

To America, this glut of language says: “You lose.”

Hack This Vote

This article first appeared in Pajamas Media.

I used to work in politics. It was unglamorous, but one thing it seemed to do in the eyes of my friends was give me the sheen of knowledge. People would call me as Election Day approached and ask me, “Who should I vote for?”

Image from Pajamas MediaMy days of holding the cell phones of office-holders are over, but the questions have persisted. People ask me things about politics and current events. I try to be helpful and point to useful articles so people can get their own sense of what’s going on.

But often, such conversations take a bitter turn. People are disgruntled — disappointed with the choices on offer, underwhelmed by the policy pronouncements, skeptical of the promises, fed up with the news coverage that tells us what the latest poll said. More than anything, though, many of my friends seem exasperated that the political machine just grinds on regardless of what ordinary people think or do.

It’s clear that, as individual citizens, people feel they don’t really count when it comes to politics. In the vast majority of counties in the vast majority of states, it will not affect the presidency whether any single person votes or not. For most states, it is almost a foregone conclusion which party’s presidential nominee will get the electors. Maryland’s electors, for example, just aren’t going to be thrown Giuliani’s way. (Which is not to say I have no duty to vote anyway.)

Through it all, well-meaning organizations try proposing systemic fixes that seem to share the core attributes of unwieldiness, naivete, and improbability.

It is time to throw a few life hacks into the mix. No, I am not talking about the Diebold machines.

First applied to the behavior of super-programmers in 2004 by journalist Danny O’Brien, through everyday usage the term “life hack” has grown to mean anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever way. Life hackers take tools and ideas that, in their basic state, only partially work — and make them useful. It all sounds very cyber and Web 2.0, but it is really a basic human impulse. Perhaps the first person to popularize life hacks was the original Heloise, whose Hints have improved the lives of millions of people: Don’t wait for S.C. Johnson’s new version of Windex, instead make your own.

Life hacks are things you can do with existing, or little known, tools. They don’t require a big change in “the system” or some new law or regulation. You can do them on your own.

That in mind, here are a few vote-hacks that lone, disgruntled citizens can do that might make their participation feel a little more meaningful. It’s a short list — you can add to it.

Not everyone is cut out to be a life hacker. It takes being comfortable fiddling with things, an inclination to tinker, and a confidence that if it all goes pear-shaped, you can probably fix it. These vote-hacks aren’t for everyone, but they might be for you.

Voting in an early primary state? Start a group to vote in a way that is reflective of political futures markets. Such markets outperform opinion polls when it comes to determining how people will vote. Result: parochial primaries can become proxies for national opinion and we can wring our hands less over the front-loaded primary calendar.

Want more of a choice than just going Red or Blue? If you live in a swing state, swap your vote with someone in another state where the votes actually matter. Result: Minor parties maintain credibility and might even grow.

Weary of dodged questions in candidate forums? Use MeetUp or Craigslist to get together a group of local citizens, big as you can. Everyone agree to ask the same question at the next town hall.

Sick of keeping quiet? Put aside a few dollars a day and, when you’ve got a bunch of money, give it to a local candidate. And then start talking to them about the issues that matter to you. You will be shocked, shocked to hear that candidates actually listen more intently to donors than to voters. Result: You aren’t just some anonymous voter with an opinion.

Of course, it’s not just citizens who are fed up and could use a few tricks. The journalists, candidates, and office-holders I know are fed up too. So, here are a few more hacks:

Journalists: Do not accept quotes from spokespeople. Insist on only talking to the candidate. Your stories may sound less like press releases.

Candidates: Fire your consultants so your campaign is not just a bunch of hired guns.

Office Holders: End all “town hall” meetings with scripted presentations. Set up a desk at the mall and let people talk to you about whatever they want. Don’t invite cameras or press.

Life hacks emerge from the distributed, collective wisdom of people solving problems on their own. So, don’t keep your vote hack to yourself. What have I missed? Post it in the comments section at the original version of this piece at Pajamas Media so others can use it, too.

(c) By Brad Rourke