Earlier this year I took a break from this blog while I ran for a seat on our local city council. Going door to door, I met many thoughtful and politically active people, several of whom expressed discouragement over their ability to be heard or to “make a difference”. I also talked to many who were unaware of the upcoming election, or who were aware but (in their own words) “hadn’t yet done their homework”. This was true even the weekend before the election. Several were reluctant to talk, some apologized that they were too busy to focus, and others simply told me they had too many other things to think about. Some said they were voting for me or for another candidate based just on the recommendation of a friend or family members, or an organizational affiliation. Many were eager to share their own thoughts and questions once they realized I would not debate or argue with them and was interested in what they had to say.
We had determined from the outset that we would run a substantive and civil campaign, which by all accounts we did. Many of our supporters, and even some who were not, thanked us for that. Both I and the winning candidate in our field of four stressed a need for the council to use more common sense and focus on the basics. This was a very resonant theme with all of the voters I talked with. The winning candidate also had an easy-going personality and promised (without much detail) “more jobs and less crime” while I highlighted several complex and interdependent issues that affect our community and the need to work together to solve them. A third candidate emphasized general “slow growth” and liberal themes. The final vote was very close. Overall, I believe that most voters wanted someone who would focus on the delivery of basic services and care about what they had to say.
Stressed out voters, informed or not, yearn for stability and for reassurance that something can be done to make their world safer, less stressful, and more hopeful. When voters feel disconnected from the issues put before them, or too tired to sort through constant conflicting streams of information, it’s easy for them to resort to cynicism about the system and the futility of being involved. We all have become adept at tuning out voices we don’t know or don’t understand. For this reason final votes often come down more to intuition and personal identification than to information. It’s a hard call.
If we are going to engage more citizens in developing the policies that affect their lives, we need to provide more relevant information and opportunities for involvement in between elections. Making the complexities (and potential unintended consequences) of our choices more comprehensible and more accessible will require helping voters to understand the connections between issues. It will require not only active invitations for citizen input, but also visible, relevant responses to citizen driven efforts. Relationships of trust and a sense of community are more influential with many voters than the “facts”. If those in government don’t find ways to build that trust, it will remain difficult to navigate hard issues in productive and efficient ways. Building trust takes time – more time than an election cycle allows. Pushing information doesn’t build that trust. Listening, inviting comment, and responding in thoughtful ways does. More efforts at authentic dialogue not tied to specific issues could help. We invite your comment.
June 30, 2010 at 1:43 pm
The most effective thing I have done to get information, be engaged and have a chance to contribute my thoughts is to join various organizations and attend meetings. Things I have tried to do alone have not been of much use, either to me or others. Neighborhood organizations, civic groups, work-related associations, have all been productive. The meetings they have can also build trust, because they often invite elected or appointed government officials, outside of the election process, and I have often had to chance to talk to them one on one while having coffee, but even without this personal touch it is very helpful in building trust (or sometimes doubt) to hear them talk and answer questions from the floor. I’m going to keep on doing this because this kind of participation adds a lot to what I get from newspapers, TV, websites, etc. and gives me a chance to feel that I’m making a contribution.