On several occasions during the recent political campaign, my evenings at home were interrupted by phone calls from pollsters. At times it was difficult to understand the caller over the voices of other workers following the same script in nearby cubicles. Sometimes the questions were loaded; on other occasions it was clearly an effort to gauge the volatility of “hot button” issues and personalities: the Iraq War; immigration; same-sex marriage; abortion; Donald Rumsfeld; Mark Foley; Nancy Pelosi; Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Whatever the technique, the partisan polling we endure each election cycle works within the assumption that voting patterns have more to do with impulsive emotions than thoughtful consideration. The anything-to-win ethic of political campaigns uses polls to exploit the naiveté, misinformation, prejudices and apathy that plague the public mindset.
The task of political strategists is to influence elections, not to educate voters. They want to make us uneasy enough about one candidate so that we’ll go with the lesser of the two evils on a parallel column of the voting machine.
Thus, the dichotomy: We share pride in a system that allows citizens from all walks of life a voice through their vote, yet we are uneasy about giving power to people who can be misled by professional manipulators.
Fortunately, the public can be protected from this kind of manipulation, but we must develop more effective ways to inform and educate the public. And that will require leaders who embrace this responsibility.
These leaders won’t come from elected officials whose priority is to stay in office. They won’t come from their allegiant staff, consultants or donors expecting access. They won’t come from political parties, special interests or ideologues that write columns or rant on talk shows. They won’t come from ministers who intimidate and threaten with their own apocalyptic pronouncements.
They will come from people with integrity in the public sector, the private sector and the social/nonprofit sector – leaders, activists and everyday citizens who are not ready to give up on democratic ideals and the collective judgment of a well-informed public.
The first task of these leaders is to acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers. They must make people feel welcomed in a process of civic engagement. They must listen to their stories and respect their points of view even when they are not articulate, insightful or consistent.
With that kind of leadership, people from all walks of life can have a meaningful role in shaping a vision for our community, region, state and nation.
Forums, neighborhood discussions and town hall meetings can expose issues that are more important to a community than political rhetoric. We can present information to civic and service clubs, professional associations and ad hoc committees. We can use newspaper and radio and public access television to analyze facts, conditions and trends in ways all citizens can understand. Options and strategies can be explored, acknowledging the advantages and disadvantages of each.
We can face up to the costs, tradeoffs, and consequences. We can ask others to help us think through the tough decisions ahead.
All of this will encourage the public to question whether our public actions reflect what should be our public priorities:
We can bring stakeholders together to sit around the table and face up to community, institutional and systemic shortcomings. We can challenge them to look at a bigger picture, transcend their own interests, roll up their sleeves and discover common ground for the common good.
We can debunk the political strategists who could care less if we are informed, as long as we are convinced to heed their call and vote their way.
In so doing, leaders and project proponents will mobilize broader, more effective support and the direction and decisions of our community will be inherently better and wiser.