The Disconnect: Two to Tango?

I have heard (and read) many people complain about how out of touch political leaders are from average Americans. How true. Just think of former President Bush marveling at the grocery scanner device, or former Vice President Gore’s “no controlling legal authority” apology that was the most totally off-the-mark mea (non) culpa in recent memory. These and other political leaders are, truly, out of touch with what people think and feel in the real world. And many more current examples come to mind without much effort.

But here is my question: how many average Americans are at all in touch with the notions underlying responsible self-governance? Aren’t we “ordinary folks” just as guilty?

Think about it:

* We treat candidates for office as if they are “applying for a job” and we are the “bosses” — rather than understanding that we are seeking to find leaders in whom we will place our trust.

* We demand a stance on every little issue, with the implicit understanding that, if we don’t hear what we want, we will pick someone else for the “job.” And, woe betide the candidate who has no response, or who learns something new and so changes their views — we will say they have no conviction and that they flip-flop on the issues.

* All too many of us rely on campaign advertisements to inform ourselves. Those few of us who go beyond that only seek out information from sources we already agree with — and so our biases are perpetuated.

* We say people should “get involved” — but how many of us have really done anything that could count as involvement, like volunteer on a campaign or attend a public meeting?

* We demand “public financing” or “campaign finance reform” as if the enterprise of running for office were dirty and money should never touch it — but few of us have ever donated anything besides money (time, for instance) to a candidate whom we admire.

It is little wonder that the least-leaderly among us choose to run for office under such circumstances. Who would want to lead ingrates like us?

Of course, we’re not all so bad. Many who are reading this are no doubt part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

But, while we are patting ourselves on the back, we might ask ourselves, looking deep inside our civic souls: what have we done lately to bridge the disconnect? What have we done lately that could really be counted as a step towards a solution?

I know that, when I get honest about it, I will not like the answer I give. How about you?

Candidates' Night Is No Help

Last night I went to a nearby local candidates’ forum. What struck me is just how bad the entire experience was. Yes, I know that’s heresy.

This should have been no surprise. On some level, it wasn’t — across America, local politics is always marked by an amateurish, “Our Gang” feel (you know, “Let’s put on a show in the barn!”). But I realized during the event that recently I’d romanticized democracy. “Citizens” had become these idealized, democratic beings who just want to make the best choice come Election Day. “Candidates” had become, in my mind, altruistic characters who sacrifice their time and energy for the greater good. And “candidate debates” such as the one I had attended had become the apex of democratic process, the perfect place in which democracy is practiced.

What was I thinking?

The candidates sounded fine — but only fine. The choice folks are facing in November is not much of one: knock out the shrill, fringe candidates and whatever they do collectively in the voting booth will garner well-meaning folks who will try their best. No one stood out as a leader. But, one may argue, that’s not the role of municipal government. We can’t have Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan as mayor in every town.

No, it’s the group of civic associations that put on the event that was the most disappointing. The event created an experience that actually worsened people’s relationship — if there had been any — with the candidates. So much of what the organizers had done in the name of “getting more input” from citizens created a barrier between the audience and the folks up on the stage.

First, questions were solicited in advance from citizens. That’s a good thing — it allows people’s concerns to be addressed. But the questions were read verbatim and so were all slanted according to the questioner’s biases. Here’s one: “In the past, we have developed property and then assessed its traffic impact. What are you going to do to make the planning process more logical?” The moderators needed to put their own biases aside and rephrase the questions so there wasn’t an obvious “right” answer.

Second, the candidates were given no free time in which to talk about their vision, who they are, and why they are running for office. Citizens got no sense of who those people were. All they learned was how they responded to loaded questions.

Third, the candidates only had a minute to respond to each question. That’s long enough for a platitude about “working together,” or “communicating more,” or maybe even one about “making the tough choices for the people” — but it’s not long enough to say anything else. The incumbents, in an effort to sound competent, filled their sixty seconds with acronyms of ordinances and initiatives they had been working on, confusing any in the audience who were not professional city council-watchers. The challengers, for their allotments of time, dwelled instead on the lying, evil ways and shortcomings of the current administration — or they talked about “working together” more.

The shame of it is that this local candidates’ night was completely ordinary. Events like this are going on across the country, organized in the same way with the same results. The event leaders mean well — but they create an event that pushes even the intrepid out of the process.

Needed are more ways to learn who these people are, not just where they stand on issues. An event in which the candidates are all gathered together would be a great place for that . . . but now people will have to go to a dozen ice cream socials (there are a lot of candidates and each one has their own events) to find out. But how many will really do that? A civic opportunity has been squandered and the residents are the worse for it.

Civics TQM

[This is a piece from November 13, 2000, originally published in Ethics Newsline, a publication of the Institute for Global Ethics. The original is here. As engagement in politics plummets ever more, and as the 2004 presidential campaigns heat up, it seems to have new relevance. Let me know what you think. –BR]

As we went to bed Tuesday night, many of us felt sure we’d know who had been elected president in the morning. Wednesday night, it seemed clear we’d know more by Thursday’s close of business. Now it looks like the earliest we’ll know anything is November 17, and that’s assuming a best-case scenario. It’s got everyone on edge, and worse: NASDAQ closed Friday down sharply amidst the uncertainty.

It appears that whoever wins the presidency will do so with approximately half of the country grumbling that it was a raw deal. Are we really behaving like a “banana republic,” in the words of Britain’s Daily Mail? Or, as others have said, are we watching the slightly rusty wheels of democracy move forward just as they ought?

This year’s general election has raised tough issues. The questions of whether to allow some citizens to vote again, whether to abolish or fundamentally change the electoral college, and what it means to vote one’s conscience top the list.

Many say that all of the tension surrounding these issues reflects the inadequacy of the candidates between whom we had to choose. Perhaps. But the intensity of the tension also betrays an underlying civic dysfunction. Here in the oldest experiment at self-governance on the globe, we have developed and encouraged an impoverished notion of what constitutes being a citizen.

I used to work at a large company where there was a major shareholder value initiative. We tried to change the corporate culture and encourage employees to make more shareholder value-driven choices in their day-to-day work. One story we told our classes involved the luxury car manufacturers Lexus and Mercedes.

They’re both great cars — both top-quality vehicles, with good reputations. Objectively speaking, they’re roughly equivalent. But at the time (the mid-1990s), the Mercedes cost roughly twice what the Lexus did. Why? Mercedes and Lexus had different manufacturing processes. Mercedes used a traditional approach to quality control: They did the best they could throughout the assembly line, and stationed someone at the end who checked every car thoroughly. If a car was found wanting, back it went. Lexus, on the other hand, had implemented a total quality management (TQM) approach and constantly tried to make each assembly step more efficient and effective. The person at the end of the line, checking final quality, rarely had to send a car back because problems had already been corrected.

But what does this have to do with voting?

Everything. We have been led to believe, by the virtuous as well as the cynical, that there is one day every two years when we must exercise our civic responsibilities: election day. We have developed a popular mythology about voting that has turned it from the sine qua non of civic life into the non plus ultra.

Citizens are so troubled with this year’s results and so mistrustful of the outcome because so many incorrectly see their vote as the only voice they have in the choice of our leaders. The news media, political campaigns, and, ironically, good-government groups have reinforced this narrow view. Focus groups, packaged “messages,” and political news stories that only tell who appears to be ahead according to pollsters, all have helped build these civic blinders. Most disappointing, many well-meaning voter-registration efforts do little to encourage quality citizenship but instead focus on quantity citizenship.

If the only input I have into the future direction of our government comes at the end of the campaign process, in the voting booth, then I am understandably distressed with my choices. I begin to see voting as a way to send a “message” about how I feel about government. But used this way, my vote is a blunt instrument, and not voting seems like a reasonable option. Like the Mercedes quality checker, I choose to send the product back to the scrap heap, when instead I ought to have tried to fix it some time ago.

Imagine we were able to implement TQM in the civic life of the United States. Opinion makers would encourage people to focus on fixing problems early in the process, when it’s first possible to correct — and possibly preempt — them. Instead of telling citizens that their highest — and only — duty is to vote, what if we were to spend a similar amount of energy encouraging citizens to get involved before November? The intense get-out-the-vote efforts by so many nonprofit community groups could become get-out-the-letter-to-the-editor campaigns focused on Labor Day, when there is enough time to influence policy proposals. We could create a new social movement around quality citizenship.

It is tempting to say that such a push is not needed, that people already get involved in ways other than simply voting. But those who do are a small minority. In a survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for The People and The Press in January 2000, eight in ten U.S. citizens said they had not attended a city council meeting, contacted any elected official, or joined any organization in support of a cause in the last twelve months. The share of people who had never done those things was about six in ten. There is a great deal of room for all of us to improve.

There can be little doubt that we will, at some point soon, decide who the next president will be, and the wheels of American democracy will not have flown off. But this year ought to be a wake-up call. We cannot afford to squander our trust in democratic institutions. What is needed is a blueprint to implement civic TQM. It is not clear we can afford another election that taxes our trust like this one.