When I started studying and working in politics – many, many years ago - I remember friends and family members being confused about what I would be doing and how I would actually make money doing whatever it was I was going to be doing (Hi, Dad). People tend to make jokes and judgments about lawyers, politicians and lobbyists being liars and/or living without personal scruples; politics does indeed seem to breed some more than capable fish-story-tellers.
I have lots of stories, most of them true, about working in politics. There are plenty of characters in Alabama, and most of them are politicians. A few years ago, one of my sons asked me what I studied in college, and I told him political science. He said, “Wait - you’re a scientist?!” He was clearly impressed. I replied that it was social science, and he asked me if that was anything like being a mad scientist. I laughed and then said no. His disappointment was palpable; perhaps I was too hasty. Political science does seem to make a lot of people mad.
Political issues are intensely personal. Policy discussions are personal. Campaigns and campaign ads are personal. Discussing personal things in public settings creates animosity even among good friends. The intensity of the argument is in direct correlation to the importance of the issue. Even though disagreement doesn’t usually equal dislike, people get caught up in the moment and allow disagreement to divide rather than strengthen. That doesn’t have to be the case. In primary season, like-minded people argue with each other about very specific differences among pretty similar people. When candidates verbally attack each other, their fans sometimes follow suit. It’s an unhealthy and yet completely necessary process of elimination that is designed to find the best candidate to represent a constituency.
However, we’ve come a long way from adhering to Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment. False accusations and partial truths to make political points have become routine, even and especially in primaries. While they should smart like a slap across the face, lying has become the norm. Lies and half-truths are tolerated and sometimes even help create winning candidacies despite the clear underpinnings and culpability of those who perpetuate and benefit from them. That intentional inattention to the facts (see what I did there?) can be frustrating, discouraging and create serious disillusion.
What’s the solution? There isn’t one. At least, not an easy one. Politics is a messy business. Campaigns are described as a contact sport for a reason. However, we should demand that our candidates and their supporters be held accountable for any dishonesty they peddle. We should make sure that there is complete transparency in our election laws so the voters know who the men behind each candidate’s curtain are. We should elevate issues and policy positions over personalities. We should stay engaged and involved even when we’re frustrated; maybe even more so.
What if we’re left with a candidate that doesn’t mirror our values? My rule of thumb, because I am both a sincere fiscal and social conservative, is that I try to vote for the most conservative candidate that I believe can win the race he/she is in. Sometimes that means voting for someone I wouldn’t want to have over to my house for dinner. Sometimes that means voting for the record over the pretty face. Sometimes that means holding my nose and voting for someone I don’t like at all for the good of the order.
What we cannot do is take our marbles and go home. We cannot be so strident in our support for any specific candidate that we walk away from the process when our chosen candidate doesn’t win. Candidates are important, but the issues and our participation in the process we have been given are much more important. People have literally died fighting for our freedom. Refusing to vote or participate in politics due to momentary anger or disillusion is nothing short of disrespectful of that last full measure given on our behalf. Our ability to vote is a gift, paid for by the sacrifices of our founders, in the blood of our heroes, and in the work of those who have come before us. Let’s treat it that way.
Stephanie Holden Smith is an experienced policy analyst, political commentator, and public speaker. Smith has worked and volunteered in Governmental Affairs in Alabama since 1997, including lobbying for a Fortune 500 company and serving as Deputy Director of Finance for the State of Alabama. She is currently the principal of Thatcher Coalition LLC. To contact Stephanie, please go to http://thatchercoalition.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information Commentary@1819News.com.