Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Democracy requires vision as well as wins

(Working on the various instructional pieces for community groups about winning elections lately -- see here and here -- has me reflecting a little on big picture concerns.)

For years I've been saying it: the attributes that make a good candidate are pretty much the opposite of the characteristics that enable someone to govern. A good candidate needs monumental self-confidence, a thick hide, and a monomaniacal focus on getting her/himself into office. Everything else -- family, interests, and policies -- has to be secondary in campaign season. Not surprisingly, most people who master these requirements aren't terribly much use to the people who elect them once we put them in office. In office, we need quite different qualities from our leaders, including wide breadth of knowledge, curiosity, imagination and the ability to get people to work together.

We are seeing lots of the product of mastery of this system in Washington these days. The creatures of Rove get elected, but then all they can do is thrash around waving their newly won weapons, pillaging, and pandering to the theocrats who put them there. Meanwhile their Democratic foils cringe and try to slide by.

Refreshingly, someone with a lot more cred than I'll ever have has called out this systemic failure. The professional publication for political consultants is Campaigns and Elections. Ron Faucheux was a columnist for the magazine for 13 years, writing reams of perceptive copy on how to win elections. Now he is off to be a staffer for Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and writes this critique of the culture of contemporary elections.

I am compelled to make the case that for political involvement to be worthwhile -- for it to merit the sleepless nights, the begging for money, the blood-thirsty antagonism and the endless hours of back-breaking exertion -- it must be about something more than just winning and personal ambition.

There's nothing wrong with winning, of course. In political campaigning, winning is the normal measure of success. If you don't win, you're always on the outside looking in, with little ability to accomplish much. For years, I've taught thousands of candidates and campaigners about winning. But for democracy as a system, and for the people it is meant to serve, winning is only the start of it. After you win, you then have to govern, and the governing part -- the part that matters to the voters -- is something that's far too easy for political practitioners to lose sight of in our attempts simply to win elections....


The focus on winning has riveted so many of us for so long to the means of gaining power that we too often forget about the ends, about the consequences of campaigning and the purpose of policy-making....

In today's echo chamber, talking about the common good sounds like greeting card drivel, something you wouldn't say at a private political meeting with a straight face. But that's the problem. ...

A direct consequence of too much campaigning and too little leading is the inability of people in public office, once they're elected, to be able to effectively work together across party lines to accomplish the things that the public has a right to want.

Coming from someone who has devoted such a large part of his life to campaigns and elections, and who was once publisher and editor of this magazine of the same name, this may sound like a “Nixon in China” moment. Perhaps it is. But when every battle is seen as a prelude to an election, when so many public officials spend so much of their time positioning themselves and their enemies for the coming campaign, when performance is secondary to headlines, then who leads? Who keeps the promises? Who delivers?

Campaigns and elections are fun. Let's face it, there's nothing quite like a triumphant election night. But the campaign process -- the topic that this column has focused on since early 1993 -- tends to bring out the best and the worst in all of us. Our job, more than ever, is to make sure it's the best. That, in the end, will make it more worthwhile. And more fun.
Lofty sentiments, but probably not something that any of us can easily remember in the heat of battle.

Faucheux is speaking about a professionalized politics practiced by the consultant class his magazine helped define. Grassroots groups come to politics from different premises. They are seldom comfortable or welcome in the world of the professionals. Their culture (ragged, sometimes emotional, participatory) and their values (usually egalitarian, both economically and socially) are antithetical to campaign discipline. Yet they can bring what money can't buy (and what democracy is supposed to be about): enthusiastic people.

When winning becomes "the only thing," elections become thoroughly hostile to participation by grassroots groups. Most ordinary people recoil from politics as a "fun" sport -- they'll engage because the process offers them a way to get something they need or to actualize something they believe in. They don't want a box score, they want to be inspired. They want that pesky "vision thing," something few politicians can offer on demand.


Zak said...

Very interesting blog you have..an idea came to my mind..why not shorten election campaigns as a means of reducing the polarisation of election campaigns? It seems to me that American presidential elections at least take almost a full year..don't you think that sort of creates a situation which makes things more polarised?

janinsanfran said...

Sure, long campaigns at the very least raise the heat level as it takes ever louder rhetoric to catch the attention of a bored electorate. But under the US understanding of free speech, it is probably no more possible to shorten campaigns than it is to keep money from finding its way into political combat.

We're in trouble, but it has worked in the past and might in the future if the public really wants it to work better. At present, the will is not there.

Zak said...

yeah but limiting the actual campaign season to a defined period would also reduce campaign expenditure ..anyways its an idea..

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