Of Negativity

Certain signs of the season have arisen. For those who watch politics, they are as regular as clockwork and trumpet the start of a glorious time of political passion and intrapartisan fistfights.

Iowa is behind us. There has been an upset. The election-year state of the union address has been articulated. Candidates have dropped out and thrown support to the seeming frontrunner. Some campaigns have something called “momentum.” In New Hampshire, the obligatory “we reporters are cold, but the candidates are still campaigning” stories have all been filed.

And, hand wringing has begun. Political observers say that the campaigns are beginning to “go negative.” Governor Dean blames his loss in Iowa on such attacks, calling himself a “pin cushion,” the result of his erstwhile frontrunner status. Now he vows to fight all the harder. Senator Edwards apparently did so well because of his basically positive, compassionate style. And, General Wesley Clark’s campaign has gotten New York Times scrutiny for his use of opposition research on opponents.

It is only a matter of time before one candidate takes the step of proposing a “pledge” to forswear all “negative ads.” Having myself spent many election cycles promoting such pledges, I view this likelihood with mixed feelings. On the one hand, anything that draws attention to unfair campaigning as an issue must be counted a good thing. Modern campaigns have metastasized into creatures that only serve to remind people why they hate politics. On the other hand, there is a pernicious misunderstanding about so-called negative ads. The result is a sense that politics must always be a negative sport, filled with vitriol and personal attacks.

The problem lies with the definition of “negative.” Most political insiders use the word to mean “anything critical of an opponent.” But most people at home, in their living rooms, take the word to mean “unfair.” That opens the door to all manner of foolishness. Here’s an example: One candidate says that his opponent takes campaign contributions from Big Oil. That candidate calls such an attack “going negative.” Because it actually is negative in the sense that it’s “critical,” news items run about the negative attack. People at home are left with the idea that the overall campaign has devolved into personal and unfair attacks, while in fact the question of campaign contributions is a fair issue to discuss.

A far better way to characterize the kind of campaigning that drives a stake into the heart of civic life, is instead to talk about “unfair attacks.” These are the irresponsible, dishonest statements and actions that voters loathe. But what does this mean? What is OK, and what isn’t?

In the most recent Civic Values Survey (a bipartisan poll on political attitudes conducted for the Institute for Global Ethics), when asked about what sorts of criticisms are fair or unfair, Americans say it is fair to criticize an opponent for:

* An opponent’s voting record (68% say this is fair)

* Criticizing a candidate for talking one way and voting another (71%)

* An opponent’s business practices (53%)

* Criticizing an opponent for accepting contributions from special interest groups (57%)

* Criticizing an opponent for not paying taxes on time (61%)

And they say it is unfair to criticize an opponent for:

* Criticizing the actions of an opponent’s family (89% say this is unfair)

* Past troubles such as alcoholism or marijuana use (69%)

* Marital infidelity (57%)

* Past personal financial problems (81%)

* Financing your campaign yourself (76%)

Those who say any statement critical of the opposition is to be avoided are wrong — Americans do not want nice politics, nor do they deserve the insipid debate that it would engender. They want and deserve hard-hitting arguments between real candidates about issues that matter. And, they are very clear about what issues matter and which ones don’t. The poll referred to above is from 2002, but it was taken at two-year intervals frequently up to that time — and the findings remained stable.

Candidates, take heed and take heart: you can criticize your opponents.

And journalists, take note: While the gloves may well have come off and criticism between campaigns has begun, it is by no means the beginning of the end. The candidates are in general talking — arguing — about things that matter.

Just as Americans want.

Of Money and Politics in Ohio

The highest court in the land late last year dealt a win to campaign finance reform, holding up most every major provision of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. This was news worth popping champagne corks over. But, it will not clean up politics in all of the ways its proponents have claimed. The reason? It only cleans up money. Election campaigns are still as free as ever to be nasty, brutish, poll-driven affairs in which competing political juggernauts scramble to strike deeper fear into the political center about the disastrous character of the opponents.

The BCRA has taken significant steps to clean up the stench of legalized bribery that permeates campaigns today. Supporters say it will open the door to healing the chasm that now exists between citizens and government, across which each side views the other with suspicion and loathing. But, that view is based on a narrow notion of who citizens are and why they are so mistrustful. Money’s part of it, but by no means the only part.

Ohio has long been a home for a groundbreaking effort to encourage political candidates to take a higher road in their campaigns. Spearheaded by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Institute for Global Ethics and led in-state by Ohio Citizen Action and a bipartisan advisory council, since 1998 the Project on Campaign Conduct has worked directly with Congressional candidates to negotiate mutual codes of conduct and get them to agree to abide by them. Toledo was also at the forefront of this effort — ever since the Lucas County Clean Campaign Committee formed while the mayoral race between Ray Kest and Jack Ford was at its peak of nastiness. What the Project learned over three election cycles of work is that, while money plays a major part in the problem, citizens are far more turned off by the way campaigns are conducted, not how they are funded.

Repeated polling throughout the state and across the nation confirms this. In the most recent national Civic Values Survey, a bipartisan poll designed to probe the public’s attitudes toward how campaigns are waged, by far the greatest concern that citizens had was about candidates’ honesty and integrity. Twenty six percent said this was their chief concern, with nineteen percent most concerned about money issues. Another eight percent were concerned about backstabbing, negative election campaigns.

That’s across the nation. In Ohio, there is similar concern, and it’s growing. Over a two year period (from 1998 to 2000), the percentage of Ohioans who said that negative, attack-oriented campaigns are damaging democracy went from thirty seven percent to fifty percent.

What is needed is the same sort of diligence among America’s civic leaders that finally pushed BCRA onto the public agenda and into law. America’s civic leaders need to stand up and demand a better quality of campaign. They need to begin to encourage citizens to ask: “How is my candidate running?” in addition to “What are my candidate’s stands on issues?” Citizens are ready for this true civic leadership, but remain convinced that their own small voices cannot make a difference in the face of the way campaigns are conducted today. Seventy one percent of Americans say that elected officials have “a different set of values from me.” Civic leaders can light the way for ordinary American citizens to truly take back politics.

Codes of conduct are a place to start. But there are other things that can be done, too. Civic groups holding candidate forums can ask different questions, ones that focus on honesty, respect for opponents and citizens, and fairness. Organizations that endorse candidates can withhold endorsements when candidates go too strongly negative.

It is not a politics of politeness that people crave. People understand that there must be argument in politics, because the issues are so important. But there is argument, and there is name calling. It is name calling that has so turned off Americans and Ohioans, not political argument.

When all is said and done, I am certain BCRA will have been a significant step forward. But it will not erase all of the problems with politics today, and it will not produce a suddenly-engaged electorate. America’s civic leaders — the ones who set the conditions for BCRA’s passage through phone-calls, organizing, and tireless work — have a new task before them. Let us hope they bring the same energy to this one for, if they do, we will all benefit and we may yet develop a democracy in which we can take deserved pride.

Of Charity and Term Limits

America’s political leaders recently considered closing some regulatory loopholes and forcing private foundations to distribute more of their money. Survey after survey shows that Americans view public charities with increasing skepticism. The independent sector — foundations and charities — feels besieged. Yet, by many accounts volunteering and individual giving are up; the sector is growing. What’s going on here?

There’s a lesson to be learned from politics in the 1990’s. Term limits — a bad idea whose time had come — were sweeping the nation. A major culprit was institutional smugness. In politics in the 1990’s, majorities of voters in nineteen states became fed up at what they perceived as arrogant power and reached for the nearest club that would give it its comeuppance. They picked term limits.

The philanthropic and nonprofit sectors ought to take the lesson of the last decade of the last century to heart. People nowadays mistrust large independent sector institutions because they seem unaccountable and somehow self-perpetuating. But those in the independent sector world do not seem to understand why. Rather than admit the real problem, they have mounted “branding campaigns,” or taken to offering political arguments about the myriad drawbacks of this proposal or that counterproposal. The sector has mounted influence campaigns and issued talking points. It has circled the wagons.

Seldom does one hear a voice calling for a real self-examination, one that would ask questions like: “Are we funding in the right way, in a way that is true to the ideals of philanthropy? Are we truly looking to find the areas where the need is greatest? Are we seeking to help civic America, or are we primarily concerned with how things affect our own particular institutions? Do we approach our public as we would fellow citizens, or just as clients of our paternal largesse?”

It is the answers to these questions that will provide a roadmap back to a trusting partnership with American public life. Eye-catching logos, clever management strategies, and mission statements won’t do it.

There is an anti-philanthropy backlash now creeping across the nation. Foundations feel it, non-profits feel it, colleges and universities feel it. It is not born of questions about results or effectiveness. Nor is it borne of tough economic times — indeed, charitable giving by individuals is by some measures on the rise. No, the backlash is growing because people do not trust the institutions involved.

Voluntary, non-governmental efforts on behalf of the public good are what made and continue to make America great. Charity — in the best sense of the term — is a fundamental American value. That must not be let to whither.

Voters may hate Congress, but they seem to love their individual House member enough to re-elect her or him with typically easy margins. At the same time in the late 90’s that a citizen might have been voting to term-limit any and all political leadership, he or she was probably also voting to give their individual representative another two years.

And, like the individual members of Congress whom citizens seem inexplicably to love, Americans are ready, willing and able to volunteer and to donate funds to charitable causes even as they mistrust the institutional structures that enable it. People want to do their part locally. Look no further than your local — unbranded — homeless shelter. Chances are you will find neighbors volunteering there, and you may choose to join in too. Or maybe you are one of the many Americans who already have.

Meanwhile, the political arguments continue. While the most recent battle may be won, the independent sector is in danger of losing the war.

Five Civic Dangers

The other weekend I was at a meeting hosted by the National Civic League where we discussed the state of civic America. The question on the table was an open-ended: What are you seeing in America today? What civic trends are there?

There were many community-building types at the meeting, and they had a lot to say. There are many examples of progress — cities and regions coming together to solve common problems, individuals taking concrete steps for change, new programs creating new ways of interacting. There are also many brick walls — underfunding by philanthropic organizations, dearth of media coverage on issues that matter, policies implemented at the state and federal level that make community building excruciatingly difficult.

All this is true. But, while there is a lot of activity, as well as many barriers to progress, the question on the table really seemed to invite a deeper discussion. What are we seeing across efforts? What commonalities are there?

One commonality is that citizens seem to fall into the same traps as they try to move forward. There are five of these “civic dangers:”

Old reflexes. Often, when a group of citizens or network of civic groups comes together, they have done a great job of identifying the problems they want to work on — but they look to tried-and-true solutions that are neither tried nor true any longer. They see the need for new legislation, or a lobbying effort for different funding, or for a different kind of candidate to become elected. Reflexes like this diminish the role of citizens themselves. They are in fact anti-civic in nature insofar as they treat the solution to the problem as “over there,” in someone else’s hands, rather than in my own. It’s not every problem that has a uniquely civic solution, but the frequency with which I see groups lapse into traditional issue-politics thinking is troubling.

Doing too much. Other times, when groups begin to identify and work on public problems, they are enthused about the possibilities. They begin to want to solve the whole problem themselves, rather than focus on a piece that they can manage. This can kill momentum. A group of citizens I know in Toledo were single-handedly successful in changing the nature of a mayor’s race — but they are disappointed and dispirited because there are a host of other political ills in the city that they haven’t made a dent in. They’ve succeeded, but they think they’ve failed.

Leadership. In communities across America, people agree leadership is important. For over a decade, the word has been the touchstone for change: change always requires leaders. This has driven an increase in “leadership training” offerings. It seems every new initiative must have a leadership training component, and the outfits lining up to provide the training are myriad. But there’s leadership and then there’s leadership. It is a rare leadership training program that truly cultivates the civic sensibilities needed to stick with community change over the long haul. Many such programs are really only designed to replace an “old-boy” network with a “new-boy” network: the way things get done is still dependent on informal interactions of elites. The Harwood Institute, the Kettering Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation are doing groundbreaking work in truly civic leadership and hopefully it will spread.

e-Fatuation. I have seen this one many times. Often as a group begins to gather momentum, they take notice of new technologies and begin to wonder how they can be used to further their efforts. They read about political campaigns that are said to use the Internet in new ways and see themselves benefiting from such an approach. But the tech-savvy and the neophyte alike seem to get blinded by the gadgetry. I call this e-fatuation. They see a website as an end in itself; they see bulletin board systems as a substitute for face-to-face interactions; they see increasing listerv subscribers as an indicator of effectiveness. As this happens, groups can easily lose sight of the humanity in which the technology is to be in service of. Or, they can lose sight of what they want to accomplish and the tail wags the dog. The result, as so many initiatives have shown, is a lot of online activity — and precious little change.

Finally, the meeting highlighted another troubling trend in American civic life: the professionalization of change agents. There are more and more consultants and organizations who specialize in bringing “technical assistance” to bear on public problems. On the one hand, this is a good thing: there is depth on the civic change bench. On the other hand, it’s very, very bad. It can rob citizens of the very participation they crave by setting the consultants up as “change experts,” letting everyone else off the hook. The hallmark of truly civic efforts is that citizens see themselves as holding the keys to the solution. To the extent that it is consultants — all well-meaning — who hold those keys, the citizens become mere clients and change gets driven by the hired and not the implicated.

These civic dangers are not civic destiny. They are simply things to watch out for as we try to make progress in common. Thankfully, these dangers carry with them the seeds of their own solution. Here is how I have seen groups of citizens avoid these civic traps:

Play politics as unusual. This relates not only to how you go about it but also to what you go after. Examples of this approach can be seen in many places — unusual coalitions coming together to push for change.

Take small steps. In Toledo, a group of citizen reformers think they’ve failed because all politics has not changed, they actually succeeded. Why? Their effort focused tightly on one political race in one place — and that did indeed change.

Uncover leadership, don’t train it. The Kellogg Foundation has an approach to leadership development that starts at the community level — and stays there. Rather than “identifying” (and so separating out) leaders, this approach develops leadership traits across the community, recognizing that on some issues, in some places certain people will emerge as leaders and others will follow. There is existing leadership already in communities, people who are already looked to as sources of information and as moral exemplars. Those people need to be nurtured, not anointed.

Stay human. Which barbershop should you go to? The messy one, of course: that’s the one where the barber hasn’t had time to sweep up because the haircuts are so good the customers are stacked two deep. Which community change efforts are really moving forward? The ones it’s hard to find unless you’re part of the community. Sure, you need a website so people can find you — but stop there. Don’t try to compete with AOL and create an “online community” if you don’t need one.

Go organic. The stable of “community change experts” is large; they all sell competing processes. One may use an “electronic town meeting” in order to get as many people into one room as possible; another may have a series of “community conversations” building on one another over time. The reality is that which route you go matters far less than who is involved and why. So, shop carefully for your expert. Do they like people and want to help them move forward? Or, are they policy wonks preaching “good government?” Both are needed — but most communities need someone on their side, as opposed to someone using them to achieve an ideological end.

These are by no means the only pitfalls that might be encountered, nor the complete list of must-dos. They are only among the most common. As social entrepreneurship and citizen engagement becomes more widespread, the danger that group after group will hit a brick wall grows.

But, with some planning, those brick walls can be avoided and efforts to work for progress can thrive.

The Message

The meeting still seems very vivid, even years later. I had traveled from Maine to our nation’s capital to be there. It was in the conference room of a national grassroots organization; one of the groups that everyone agrees is made up of good folks. We were designing a course to teach first-time political candidates how to campaign ethically and still win. All of us had campaign experience.

“Candidates need to get their message out in new ways,” one person said. Another said, “They need help crafting their message.” Still another threw in, “They need to look at their message and who it will resonate with.”

What was all this talk about message?

The notion of a “message” has become so ingrained in politics that it is received wisdom — and that wisdom has crossed over to the population at large. Everyone, it seems, understands “message.” People vote for candidates “because they like their message.” People complain that Democrats “no longer have a coherent message.” People vote — or don’t — in order to “send a message,” as if the ballot box were at Western Union and not the local elementary school.

This is a problem for two reasons:

1. It diminishes the importance of the choice I make. If I am choosing between messages, then that means that whoever has been more technically skilled at campaigning will get my vote. It’s really like choosing Pepsi over Coke because I like the words “new generation” more than “real thing.”

2. But, worse still, it turns the public square into simply a machine to generate electoral power. It treats citizens as simply means to an end: election. They are not “citizens,” they are “voters.” And it assumes that what I stand for does not matter; what matters is how I talk about it.

Our abilities to campaign — our campaign technologies — have far outstripped our ability to keep up with them ethically. And I don’t mean the Internet. I mean the way we think about promotion and marketing. We are so skilled at promotion and marketing that we are playing with fire. In the marketplace, this has no worse consequence than the ability to make mediocre movies into blockbusters simply on the strength of the marketing campaign. Think here of the Matrix franchise.

But, in the public square, our skills at marketing and promotion have dire results. Recall my friends in the meeting I attended, worrying about how best to teach message development. Almost anyone can be elevated to a position of seeming leadership and, given the right confluence of events, can be placed in power — all on the power of their marketing campaign and regardless of their fundamental fitness for office, skills, abilities, qualifications or even temperament. Think of Governor-elect Schwarzenegger, who won California’s recall election not on the strength of anything he had done, or of any principles on which he had built his life or claimed to follow. His success was built on the effectiveness of two messages: 1) “The economy is bad and it is the current administration’s fault;” and 2) “Things ought to change.” And the citizens of California responded. In the words of one analyst recently, “As voters wanted, the recall brought change. But change to what? Now come the bigger questions. . . .” This is just one example; there are many more.

In the last decade, there has been a massive explosion in “media literacy.” Audiences are sophisticated about things they never used to give a thought to. Woe betide the candidate who lets him- or herself appear tired, or at all disheveled — when production values are lost, the public turns away.

While we are technically adept at examining how well a candidate speaks on the stump, we fail to examine what she or he says. Strangely, it is our very sophistication that has blinded us to reality. We’re too savvy for our own good.

As the presidential campaigns of 2004 switch into high gear, let us look less at how the campaigns are run, and think more about what they are saying. Let 2004 be a year that we get just a little less smart.

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?