Fresh Ideas: An Assignment for Voters
“Political language E is designed E to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
–George Orwell, 1945
Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher, but last week as I studied a magazine article highlighting the latest gaggle of California gubernatorial wannabes, and then listened to local scuttlebutt regarding Carson City’s next mayoral race, I was struck by the urge to create a multiple choice quiz for candidates.
A sample question might read like this:
I am running for the office of __________. My campaign slogan is:
a) I will never forget that I work for you.
b) I have hometown values.
c) I will listen to your concerns.
d) I am a native Nevadan D or at least I feel like one.
You get the idea. Too many candidates are succumbing (again) to the ready-made, mind-numbing generalities they think the public wants to hear.
Newsflash: They’re wrong.
How do I know? Think about the alarming statistics of low voter turnout. In Carson City, for example, only 45 percent of registered voters actually voted in the 2002 primary election. In Washoe County, it was about 48 percent. If I were a candidate, even a successful one, those numbers would make me squirm.
You don’t need a degree in political science or sociology to interpret the data. If candidates captured our imaginations and gave us a reason to vote, more of us would. Does it ever occur to political candidates that they all sound alike to us?
Apparently not, or they would come up with a better line than, “I’ll never forget that I work for you.” As the kids say, “Duh!” That’s what the “public” in “public servant” means.
Not that the qualities listed above aren’t admirable; of course they are — but they’re just the prerequisites for public office. It’s time that we, the voters, set the standards for campaigns. Candidates want our vote; let’s make them work for it.
For example, when candidates promise that they will remember us, let’s ask them to paint a demographic picture of exactly who “we” are. How many of us are unemployed? On welfare? How many free lunches are provided to our school children? How many of us have died from AIDS this year?
How many of our graduating high school seniors will attend college? How many adults in our city, county, or state cannot read? If candidates cannot answer those kinds of questions, and more, they don’t really know us, do they?
How about “I have hometown values”? What’s a “hometown value,” anyway? What candidate would admit that he didn’t have hometown values? Name a few hometown values, we should say, and then give us some examples of how those values make you more qualified than the next candidate. And I’d like to know what life experiences helped a candidate acquire his values — it’s one thing to mouth patriotism, for example, and quite another to lay your life on the line for your country or send your son or daughter off to war, or be committed enough to object to it.
And when a candidate espouses a hometown value that we also share, let’s not get all warm and fuzzy and hence stop interrogating him. If we value our hometown “quality of life,” for example, let’s ask how the candidate feels about buildout, hillside development, water rationing, and school bonds.
Then there’s the assurance that the candidate will always listen to us. That’s nice, but as Dr. Phil might say, “You might be listening, but are you really hearing?” We pay elected officials to listen to us — that’s the least they can do — but can they assure us that they will hear all of us, not only those who have contributed big bucks to their campaigns?
My favorite campaign device is the “bandwagon” appeal of being a native — a native Nevadan, for example, or whatever might be handy. Even I respond to that one. But I’d still ask the candidate who is asserting his native status to explain how that gives him special credentials. Mightn’t it work against him instead, precluding him from having an open mind? Could he perhaps be prejudiced against “outsiders” who just might have a good idea?
The bottom line is that anyone who throws his hat into the ring should be applauded for good citizenship and then quizzed like hell. The stakes are too high to allow someone to simply slip into an elected office without challenge, just because he says the things we like to hear.
Let’s come up with some specific questions for our next round of political candidates, in the great American tradition of impassioned debate. And if they answer our questions thoughtfully, we will have a reason to vote for them. Running for public office ought to be more like a job interview — only the hiring committee is bigger.
Marilee Swirczek was elected to the Carson City Board of Supervisors in 1986. She and Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., her friend and collaborator on numerous writing projects, might be persuaded to help very special political candidates bring their messages to the voters.