I went to the YMCA to workout this morning after the Presidential Debates. There was the usual morning crew, an impressive bunch, three doctors, a pathologist, internist, and dermatologist, getting in their exercise before long days, my closest friend, a products liabilities lawyer, a dear fellow who owns and manages two restaurants, and a retired high school Band director who I love to chat with about music because he gets so wonderfully excited, all friends, all getting in some quick lively conversation before scattering about to the pool, treadmills, free weights, and indoor track. I’d not be surprised if each one of ‘em measures higher on any number of multiple aptitude measuring devices than would I; o I have no room for being snide about this.
Still, this morning was something I couldn’t help stepping back from to listen to: as if Jack Kemp and Bill Bradley were the singers in a Tuvan Throat Singing concert, harmonies in multiple registrars echoing from the various sections of the room with a refrain of “good move” “game changing play” “key point” “effective strategy” and lots more interchangeably referencing Politics and the Patriots. We do treat it as a sport, politics that is, and though perhaps it’s not true for these guys in my locker room, I’d not be surprised to learn from credible research that our favorite, the one we root for, is chosen in large part for reasons not much different from the feeling, the vague, subconscious, often locale-driven emotion that leads us when young to say, “That’s my team.” “That’s my candidate, go, guy, go!”
What goes beyond sad is the way the two, politics and sports, mirror each other in regard to the behavior exhibited by opponents towards one another. Here, if we were to stand back for a perspective in which we could see our image, we’d behold an undeniably ugly sight. Just think of the fistfights on sports fields, and the vicious, smearing campaign attacks. What makes this far more than merely sad is that there is an open, even a public-demanded, largely desired viciousness at work. We want it; we calibrate our scorecards in a way that positively checks what ought be clearly seen as repulsive manners. The pundits on the radio this morning regarded one candidate’s aggressiveness as the character trait exhibited that “clearly” made him the winner.
The accusations made in campaigns all over our land are horrifying, and for some of us they are not horrifying in the sense of telling anything about the accused, but in the sense that someone could speak or have others speak for them about another human being in such a disrespectful way. Nations have personalities and ours is decidedly not a Light unto the nations of the world concerning the most fundamental aspect of life—how to behave, how to treat each other—even as our influence is so very large, being the modern world culture most widely emulated.
Think not only of the hard-hitting but of the pompous self-promoting and strutting. Can anyone doubt that between our politicians and athletes, swaggering and boasting has become a commonly seen, acceptable behavior for our children . And yet, it is a sight that doesn’t quite jibe with what could be condoned as “showing good self-esteem.” No, that’s not quite what we’re seeing really.
Nor can this bluster be the way to show a concern for the greater society, since the very terrible regard for the other is what is literally featured for a significant percentage of the time the politician is before our eyes. Sadly, we don’t even consider hiding our children’s eyes from the meanness and self-glorifying. Our preservation instinct has been garbled, lost its way, rent of the sense of what could be for a humanity in which the golden rule principle raised as supreme by every religious tradition was becoming more and more characteristic. Instead, we teach and encourage our children to get out in that world and push your way ahead, kid, even if it means being more ferocious and self-glorifying than the next. Neighbor as self?
What would a vote be like that we could be proud of? First off, we would attract candidates who are bright folks with big minds and a passionate commitment to democratic government, people whose concern for society is great enough for them to feel the importance of what they do and have the panoptic scope through which to see what they need to do. This is no game.
And here is where that line takes on more than a poetic tone, for campaigning would mean the candidates meet. About what? Everything. No doubt, something like “fair witnesses,” the kind described in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, would attend as a board of facilitators or mediators, and each candidate would have advisors; but… the two or three or four actual candidates would by a long shot be the primary participants. And they would have a mutual commitment to working it out.
What would they be working out? They would have a list of issues and general questions concerning political philosophy and realistic hypothetical situations put together by a non-partisan group of government workers who specialize in elections. Each candidate would work with the other with the aim of presenting one another’s point of view well. The goal would be to represent fairly and then to work together to make clear the differences, the choices the voter has.
Immediately, we picture such a process as one in which the candidates get involved in jostling and jockeying, but that is because we are so acclimated. The tragedy would be our having become so jaded as not to see that there really could be a day when our leadership—those who would be up for office, those who work on an issues list, mediators and advisors—would be people deeply and primarily committed to us and a democratic process that works. Such a working democracy requires the ability for leaders to work with others in articulating issues and choices for the sake of the whole working, for the sake of the “people” they serve. As is, we are a nation constantly locked in jams, as Congress and the Executive Branch constantly prove. We are addicted to conflict and a point of view that surely does not see government as “good” or our leaders as worthy.
But we have a moral obligation to believe that we could nurture something different, that we could have the leaders we deserve, as the old adage goes, who now are folks with varied philosophies but with a common believe in and commitment to a political process that does not just work, but demonstrates something very very fine happening. The great democracy is one where our leaders experience self-interest as an “us-centered” interest. They are the voice of the Canton, the nation, they give the people a voice with a tone and content to be humbly proud of.
In such a day, working up the papers that are key to an election would not be as long and drawn out as one might think since the candidates are committed to working it out in a shared honesty for the sake of the voters, for the sake of making their choice as clear as can be. We have those amongst us who are bright enough to make a standardization of statistics for the candidates to commonly use for the sake of this clarity, which everyone wants… for the sake of this honest presentation of the contrasts for the people’s consideration. Again, these are candidates who are politicians, which in this better day will mean their primary identity is as a participant in a great system for the sake of the society, even before their identity as one who wants the position of power. I want the position, but I want the people and the democracy to function, want us to be a government with a dynamic and wonderful personality, not one locked in an incessant inner struggle that a team of Freuds and Jungs and B.F. Skinners can’t untangle. We have been moving like three hundred million occupying a single sack for the picnic race; but we can raise an angel of our making, a great government that lives and acts with a kind of grace and good conscience that is exemplary, a beacon for humanity! This is the America experiment, never done before, that our Forefathers hoped for and would be so proud of us for realizing.
The meetings in which the election papers are fashioned would be the kind I would want my children to see, models of good behavior, mutual respect, and communal commitment to being a democracy, not a deadlocked nation, but a dynamic one. But this all falls a good bit short of a worthy précis if we don’t consider the voter. In such a day, the bromide, the mere “good sound” of “the privilege of voting” needs to become something substantially more. We know the danger of poll taxes and literacy tests, so the saner route is to make participation the eligibility requirement for each election. How so? Candidates would respect the citizenry enough to make the documents they present over the weeks prior to an election of a length that folks can handle. Professional readers could make audios for those who prefer to take in their information this way. Media, who already makes so much of elections, would devote as much time to this new, intelligent process, sharing the commitment to a fair, mannerly presentation of the matters. They must be responsible to all for a healthy, fair process; do their part in making an election that is open-eyed and clean-aired.
A requirement for the voter might be attending a public reading or briefing prior to election day. This could be the newfangled “poll tax” which requires no money, but simply some level of exposure, awareness, demonstrated investment. We need to move beyond votes decided on good looks and sound bytes or diehard party affiliation. We want a caste of politicians worthy of us, and we need to be worthy of our democracy! We are surely capable of striking a healthy balance between wanting our vote to be intelligent and not wanting a prohibitive eligibility requirement reminiscent of truly dark days.
This may all seem to be an idea as futuristic as some of Kubrick’s in 2001. Most of those probably won’t come to be till 3001 or later, but ours here need to become the living reality soon. To not believe in human nature, to not think that this is possible, to not aspire for such a civil, thoughtful process, well, that is like not giving the car any fuel, that is like hiding the key. To believe, to have the fuel and the key, well those elections will give us the direction, and we will go the way we decide is best. Regardless of the specific roads, the mere sound of that motor, the movement of the vehicle, and the quality of the conversation within would all be democracy running in a way I’d be awful excited to show George Washington. Such a trip, after all, would have been engineered by a spirit of patriotism he’d wished for in his dearest dream.