Wednesday, November 3

To American Politicians: Do NOT Misread the American Public

This morning I heard a few post-election celebration speeches. I heard phrases like "the American people have spoken" and "this is a clear win for the ________ party" and "we now have a clear mandate." No, no, and no.

In some places, politicians seem to believe that their win indicates something specific about what the voters want. And yet, if any politicians have been paying attention to the media even a little bit, they'll know that far too many voters were exercising their right to throw out the incumbent just because. It's not because the other candidate is any better because often that's not the case. But the other candidate was not the person in office, so maybe, just maybe there could be actual change.

But then I heard a politician who managed to retain his office talking about the battle not being over and how he pledged to continue to fight and, with a very clear jab at the Republicans, he stated how the best way to govern was not through endless filibusters.

On the radio this morning I heard the government described as "divisive," though perhaps, given the context, she meant "divided." But "divisive" works because the Republicans don't seem to be in any mood to play nicely. In fact, they seem determined to thwart anything and everything the Democrats may try to do.

And how does that help the American people? Oh wait, I know. . .it doesn't!!

An AP report states that the American people are trying to tell the government to "slow down." President Obama, who has had an incredibly ambitious plan for his first term, said:
"I think people started looking at all this, and it felt as if government was getting much more intrusive into people's lives than they were accustomed to," the diminished president conceded. He took responsibility for not doing enough to alter the ways of the capital, from hyper-partisanship to back-room dealing. "We were in such a hurry to get things done that we didn't change how things were done."
This from the man who claimed he would work hard to change the way things worked, or not, in Washington.

We know the country is divided. We heard that throughout this campaign with the hateful language, the attack ads, the name-calling, the finger-pointing, and more. But we also heard responses from the American people that made me wonder how any politician could possibly imagine a way to appease anyone. We know the sticking points: health care, jobs, debt, jobs, taxes, jobs.

This can't be about ideology: I'm right and you're wrong. This has to be, I think, about finding common ground to provide the best possible solution for the majority of the American people. Abraham Lincoln said, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time." But my favorite Lincoln quote that I would love to share with politicians is this one: "I am a firm believer in the American people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crises. The great point is to bring them the real facts."

Let's just forget about who the American voter might be punishing or rebuking and who we might be celebrating or embracing. Let's just acknowledge that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have all of the answers. Let's acknowledge there is room in this great country for the Greens, the Libertarians, the Independents, and yes, the Tea Partiers. But let us remember that the federal government is "we the people" and we the people really can be depended upon to meet national crises.

So if given the opportunity to address politicians, I would say this: "Just tell us truth, no matter how ugly or painful. Just give us the real facts. Only then can we begin to trust you, only then can we begin to have any confidence in you and your willingness to do what's best for the country rather than worrying about your re-election or your legacy. Only then can we begin to make good decisions to support you or to let you know what is really working for us or what is not working for us. Keep in mind we don't all have to agree and we won't. But don't fill us with false hope by pretending to promise quick changes because we may need to reminded that some things just take time. As much as it seems not to be part of a politician's DNA, be honest. Try it; you just might find that Lincoln was right to believe in the American people."

Tuesday, November 2

America on Election Day

This morning
It was barely light as people pulled up to the polling place. Strangers nodded, acknowledging each other's presence, but not quite making eye contact. There was an aura of sobriety, perhaps because people were pondering difficult choices. "Do I vote a straight party ticket?" "Am I voting against an incumbent or for a viable candidate?"

The poll workers were cordial, helpful, friendly. They were, of course, at the start of what would be a very long day. People spoke in hushed voices. There was some conversation between neighbors, people who knew each other. A man asked after another man' family. They shared a quiet laugh. For the most part, people entered the polling place quietly, cast their votes, put on their "I Voted" sticker, and exited quietly.

Before today
The Chicago Tribune published a challenge in its editorial on Saturday. The editorial challenge began on the front page and above the banner. It begins this way:

When you swore you'd fix Illinois. . .

. . . you had Tuesday in mind. Let your fury rise and your blood pressure build: George Ryan. Rod Blagojevich. Job creation 48th in the U.S. Public education spending 18th, but public education performance 38th. Clouted university admissions at your kid's expense. Corruption galore. Diluted ethics reforms that protect party bosses. FBI agents and federal prosecutors struggling to police public officials because voters haven't.

So keep your word. Fix Illinois. Fire incumbents who blocked reforms. Stop. Their. Spending. Elect problem solvers.

I'm not sure the good folks of the Tribune will get what they want, but the article got my attention and made me think though, perhaps, not for the reasons the editorial team hoped or expected. Tonight I was thinking about pictures I saw after the election in Afghanistan. Two men struggling along a mountainous path carrying a large locked box; a man with a weapon trailing behind them. He was, I assume, the guard. To protect the integrity of the voting? Unless he was paid off to make sure the votes didn't to their destination. Or he was protecting the corrupted votes. Of course, a single "guard" could easily be overpowered by more than one person with a weapon.

And then I started thinking about the steps Americans have taken to protect the vote, the quality of the voting, the integrity of the votes after only a few but dramatically shocking, even scandalous, voting improprieties. Though Illinoisans joke about people voting early and often, whether dead or alive, it was clear at my polling place that those judges took their responsiblities seriously and the appreciated their task to protect my vote. My. Single. Vote. Pretty cool.

As I watch the election results, I'm not entirely surprised by what I see so far. Christine O'Donnell defeated in Maryland, though I am shocked she got 40% of the vote. As of this moment, Republicans will take the House which means that Nancy Pelosi will not longer be Speaker. The commentators have observed that John Boehner will beome Speaker of the House and that, unlike Pelosi or Gingrich, Boehner is unlikely to grandstand or celebrate excessively. Both Pelosi and Gingrich brought loud and dramatic attention to their ascendancy and that of their party which caused their party counterparts to get, well, miffed. Smug gloating and over-the-top celebration doesn't do much to build a sense of rapport or camarderie. If they had been football players, they would have been penalized for taunting and/or excessive celebration.

In Illinois, Pat Quinn (D) and the incumbent candidate for governor has a slight edge as does Alexi Giannoulias (D), who is running for the Illinois Senate. In fact, most of the races in Illinois are close. But most the incumbents remain in office. I have to wonder how they will few the election results when all is said and done. Will they see that their 6% lead is NOT a mandate? Will they understand that a close race means that people remain divided and, perhaps, voted not for the "best" candidate but the one they thought might do the least harm?

No matter what the result, I'm certain I'll be left with a vague uneasiness because of the political diviseness. Pundits talk about the ungliness of this campaign. There have been stories about how campaigns have been funded. This country came together in unprecedented ways after 9/11, but that same event has caused some of the worst of the hateful rhetoric and the deepest divisions. (As an aside: wouldn't it be nice if negative attack ads could be classified as "hate speech?"). The Wall Street/banking/housing debacles contributed to the venom, backstabbing, and more hateful, unproductive rhetoric. Rather than joining forces to solve the problem, politicians started slinging accusations and assigning blame to the other party, one or more prior presidents, etc.

So my fear is that it will take another attack on America, something hugely tragic, to get our attention again and remind us how to work together and that we need to work together. That while there is room for a difference of opinion, and that while conversation and negotiation and collaboration and even disagreement can be complex and even difficult, those tensions, in which people might agree to disagree, might give rise to solutions one group or another might not possibly discover on their own.

My fear is that because of grand-standing, finger-pointing, and name-calling we have missed opportunities to be truly visionary and innovative; we have missed opportunities for improvement as we have dragged each other into the morass of dissension and counterproductive conflicts.

Tomorrow morning the make-up of the US House of Representatives will be different as will that of the US Senate, though perhaps not as dramatically. I can only hope that those politicians will remember the anger of the American people and will try their best to work together. I can only hope.