Attending a reception for a retiring legislator with whom I had worked on jobs and educational policy, I was pleased to see a mixed group of Republicans and Democrats have a good time together in saluting a fine person.
We were seated next to a couple who soon expressed a frustration over the rank partisanship in political campaigns and especially the so-called attack ads. These folks did not seem to us to be sophisticated insiders of great experience in politics of any kind. But they wanted to talk to someone and we were it; their tone lacked any kind of partisan invective.
“We’d like to see campaigns actually spend their money in a way that benefits our nation,” one said to us, followed by the suggestion that the campaigns themselves figure out ways to survey the voters who elect them and then somehow require that candidates spend their time and money further engaging the public on the major issues and potential solutions.
They suggested that a public version of an “American Idol” voting process could further involve people in sharing their views with the candidates in an effort to sort out viable, workable solutions.
Two-party system of yesteryear
This is definitely not the campaign system I have experienced in my many years of working for candidates at all levels.
I was trained in a two-party system that basically focused on a political party recruiting electable candidates, training them on how to organize themselves, raise some money, identify supportive voters, and getting out the vote on Election Day.
Perhaps our new friends are on to an idea that could engage and improve things?
Few of those seeking office can ignore some of the common concerns of Minnesotans and Americans. The availability of affordable health care, good jobs, quality education, public safety in the neighborhoods, and the possibility of future terrorist attacks in the U.S. top just about any list of priorities.
Less positive concerns center on dissatisfaction with government, especially in Washington D.C., and the health of the federal budget, now over $21 trillion in the red.
Personally, I have been disappointed that too few people place racial harmony, clean air and water, and long-term energy affordability as urgent priorities, but we all have our own wish list.
A new way to engage the public
Here is how major candidates could proceed, perhaps working together, according to our new friends.
- Candidates and parties use their websites to solicit opinions on voters’ concerns, eventually narrowing the list to five or so.
- Candidates or their party run ads on TV, radio, and social media seeking from the public, without regard to their political affiliation, the best solutions to consider.
- Somehow, then, the public’s views are cataloged into specific approaches to become the centerpiece of the candidate’s ongoing campaign, including in any debate format.
Our political process has long been challenged, with fewer than one in 20 of us getting involved at the grassroots, only one in 10 ever participating in any capacity in government service at any level, and only around half of us voting.
In recent years, we’ve had U.S. presidents who have challenged Americans to rediscover the idea of “public happiness” – the happiness that comes from participating actively in our self-government – that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson agreed on when they put “Pursuit of Happiness,” in capital letters, in the Declaration of Independence.
The first President Bush’s “Thousand Points-of-Light” initiative, President Clinton’s AmeriCorps and the second President Bush’s USA Freedom Corps each provided important incentives to volunteering. In his first months in office, in 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act that founded the ongoing Corporation for National and Community Service.
Perhaps it is time to change our way of doing politics to get at real issues in a manner that suggests constructive solutions — with our candidates, themselves, leading the way.
Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm; he is a former State Republican chair and head of the Minnesota Business Partnership and can be reached at Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com.
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