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Pollster Politics

THIS WEEK, I was out on the boulevard digging holes for plants and protecting them by chanting the mantra “May no dog pee on your head, may no dog pee on your head” when a political-party-worker-guy strolled up. 

He asked me five questions. Would I vote for Obama? Franken? Karen Clark? Keith Ellison? And which issue was most important to me: Health, education, or the economy?

While I piled on the mulch, I answered his questions, and then he strolled on, convinced he now knew something about my politics. I was probably supposed to feel that I had just been heard in some sort of meaningful way. To that guy, I’m Obama-Franken-Clark-Possibly Ellison-Health. It’s a quickie statistic, a stats bite instead of a sound bite, a philosophy in a capsule.

Except that it’s a lie.

Off in television production land (I’ll come back to Whittier in a second), they do this same thing. They craft television shows to please sponsors and keep production costs low, then say they’re giving the public what we want because we settle for watching at least some of those shows. We’re choosing what we watch from the choices being offered to us; we’re not imaging all the creative possibilities of writing, photography, and television and then suggesting “Fear Factor.” It’s a backward system, hardly a free market, and it’s aimed at preserving the producer-sponsor relationship, not the artist-audience one.

Ditto politics. I didn’t dictate that list of concerns offered to me, so political-party-worker-guy left my little garden with absolutely no idea of what really matters to me. And he left every house in my neighborhood not knowing, either, but that’s probably just fine in his party’s book, because the relationship they’re working to preserve is not the one between candidates and voters.

So what do I care about: Health, education, or the economy? Well, all of them, like any sane person on the planet. Sheesh. Party-worker-guy didn’t want my thoughts and ideas about how we might juggle resources and needs and wrestle with those particular issues, he was just fishing for my biggest primal fear of the moment. If I said “health” because I think privatized healthcare is bloated and inefficient, and my neighbor said “health” because she wants her Medicare intact, and her neighbor said “health” because he doesn’t want his tax dollars paying for freeloaders, we all go down as “health” with any nuance and real meaning obliterated. And next week, we’ll see a new television ad scaring the pants off us about health care costs because the politicians are just giving us what we want.

But I don’t want this. I want to hear four smart people talk about how this country might provide health care that really works. I want to hear eight terrific ideas for the kinds of education that will be relevant in 2020. I want an intelligent, reasoned discussion of issues. An exchange of ideas, not an exchange of shrieking, televised insults. A conversation that involves listening. Clear arguments built on logic and facts. Possibilities for more than two opposing positions on each issue. If we’ve heard from the Right and the Left, that doesn’t mean we’ve heard from the people.

My various personal charms, beliefs, and wisdoms cannot be boiled down into five things. I’m not just Obama-Franken-Clark-maybe Ellingson-Health. I’m much more complicated and fascinating than that. I care about many of the systems and policies in this country, this state, this city, this neighborhood. And I, like a whole lot of other people and maybe even all of us, understand that this country and my neighborhood cannot be run to calm my personal fears. I am not the only person living here. I don’t vote to get my own way. I vote to get things run wisely and compassionately to the benefit of as many of us as is possible.

Anyone who grew up with siblings understands that sometimes you do what’s best for your brother, sometimes you do what’s best for your sister, and sometimes you stretch the money and the time to try to do the best you can for everyone. This is a vulgar simplification of democracy, but if 5-year-olds can grasp it, maybe politicians can.

Politicians and the people who run them are just plain wrong when they treat the public as if we can only respond to one-word fears. We can, in fact, comprehend the concepts of sharing a country, sharing resources, and sharing ideas about issues that are complicated, challenging, and important to all of us.

We don’t need to elect people who needlepoint because we needlepoint. We don’t need to elect people whose children wear the same kind of shoes that our children wear. We don’t need people in office who represent his economic class or her particular church. We need people in office who represent the whole diverse lot of us, who consider everyone at the table and then search out the people who never even got the dinner invitation.

That’s what the audience wants, but that’s not what Hollywood’s producing.

That’s the issue that’s most important to me. Tabulate that.

This was published in the Southwest Journal October 2, 2008.

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