Seven Harmful Political Habits (With Hints for Getting Over Some of Them) –by Jinny Batterson
(This entry, posted on the eve of the 2014 political primary in North Carolina, is definitely prose, and definitely a rant. I’ve circulated earlier, longer versions among politically active friends. If you live in North Carolina, please pay special attention to item 7–if you have not already voted, please vote this Tuesday, May 6, 2014.)
For much of my adult life I’ve had some bad political habits. As a citizen in a democracy, I am a member of multiple levels of government whether I like it or not. Democracy, as is often pointed out, is imperfect, but still better than any other option. So I’m working to rid myself of my bad political habits. My seven worst habits are listed below. Recognize any?
1) Politics is serious business, so I need to engage in it with utmost seriousness.
Many of us with reformist bents can allow our passion for improving the world to overtake all sense of humor and proportion.When I do this, I too often trip over my own earnestness, alienating potential allies—sending nasty letters to elected officials; carrying placards and frowns. Gifted politicians of many persuasions have learned to take themselves lightly while taking their causes seriously—seen any pictures of a scowling Nelson Mandela lately?
2) Politics is dirty, and most politicians are crooks, so I don’t want to get involved.
The list of our national, state and local political scandals seems endless. We can find it too easy just to walk away from politics—if we get too close, we might get tainted, too. Politicians of all political parties have sometimes behaved like the little kid with his/her hand in the cookie jar. Politics can be a high-pressure occupation, so I shouldn’t be too surprised when officials are tempted to raid whatever cookie jars are most available to them. That’s why cookie jars are best kept in plain sight, through strictly enforced funding and reporting requirements, responsible investigative journalism, and active, informed, involved citizens.
3) Government can solve all our problems.
We can let our expectations of governments get overblown, instead of trying to make a difference where we have the most expertise and potential impact. Much as I’d like for my elected officials to snap their fingers and instantly solve globalization, automation, unemployment, poverty, and climate change, I realize that expecting governments to do too much too quickly can be self-defeating.
4) Government is the problem.
On several occasions, I’ve lost my temper in conversations with “faceless bureaucrats.” Some government regulations are obsolete, needlessly harsh, or downright stupid. Parts of government can be maddeningly unresponsive, from the local to the federal level.
It’s far easier for me to remember government actions that inconvenience me or limit my perceived choices than to remember valuable government services, from filling potholes on winter-damaged roads through developing health care insurance exchanges to producing comprehensive reports about the scope and potential impacts of global climate change.
5) Local politics does not matter.
We can too easily focus on the “big” political races, glossing over the reality that the government level that impacts us most directly is local: zoning rules; property tax laws and rates; school pupil assignments; the placement of roads, parks, and greenways; economic development plans and procedures. To be most effective, I should rightly focus most of my political time and effort on local issues. Besides, for citizens and officials alike, learning needed consensus building and compromise skills starts close to home.
6) If I just elect the right candidates, all will go well.
In several previous election contests, I’ve voted for a successful candidate I thought would be best for the town/county/state/country, and then got disappointed when little changed. “Serving the public” has never been more challenging. Since the 2010 census, each U.S. Representative, on average, serves over 700,000 constituents. Many local towns, cities, and/or counties have correspondingly large populations in each of their districts. If I want the elected officials who represent me to reflect my views, I need to remind them what those views are between election cycles—coherently, respectfully, and repeatedly.
7) Primaries do not matter.
I’ve usually skipped voting in primaries. They occur at odd times in the spring when I have more pleasant uses for my time. It can be inconvenient to find the time and place to vote, or to remember in advance to apply for a mail-in ballot and then to complete and turn it in. However, because of population shifts and continued gerrymandering, many political jurisdictions at all levels are seriously skewed to favor one or another political party—whoever wins that party’s primary is nearly guaranteed a victory in the general election. If I want to have an impact, I therefore need to make my vote count in primaries as well as in general elections.
I am not likely ever to cure myself completely of my bad political habits, nor are you. However, if each of us works to become less prone to our own bad habits, we can change our governments at multiple levels for the better. Rather than the more and more polarized political culture we have now, we may even be able to move toward the “more perfect union” envisioned by our nation’s founders as they wrote the preamble to our U.S. Constitution.