Friday, September 5, 2014

Comparative Politics

When you decide to run for office, one of the first things you are supposed to do is complete a box with four squares.

Top Line:
1. What I say about myself
2. What my opponent says about themself

Bottom Line:
3. What my opponent says about me
4. What I say about my opponent

Most candidates would like you to go into the voting booth with a simple message:  "I love everything you love.  I hate everything you hate.  Vote for me."  In fact, that is the theme of most political campaigns, with few exceptions (i.e., those who are driven by a particular mission like anti-development or pro-round-a-bouts).

For that reason, political opponents are compelled to break the narrative.  "Well, just so you know, Candidate A doesn't love everything you love and they don't hate everything you hate.  Don't vote for them."  These responses are best placed on particular issues that have traction with the electorate - taxes, education, personal rights & freedoms, or public safety.

Our collective response to "narrative breaking" is discomfort.  It is like a heated argument about the Middle East breaking out at a dinner party.  "That's just a whole bunch of rude right there and I do not appreciate it.  We're going to Arby's."  But, it is part of the political conversation we treasure in a democracy.  It is why we trust our electorate with electing our leaders when previous generations had them appointed or deigned by birthright.  It's nominate, scrutinize, vote; not nominate, lionize, vote.

Acknowledging that this is part of the process, I would suggest a secondary test to determine the value of such political speech:

1. Is it true?
2. Is it relevant?
3. Do you have anything else to say?

On the first point, we can tell a lot about a candidate based on whether they are lying to us out of the gate.  "Candidate A supports baby punching."  No I don't.  "But you would if it came up for a vote."  No, seriously, that sounds like a horrible idea and I would never support it.  "That's exactly what a baby-puncher would say." 

Admittedly, this is a hard line to hold considering the nuance of political speech.  As an example, shortly after The Sun published its article about the race in 9B, my opponent interpreted the piece to say that I supported "more spending and more tax increases."  That's not true and nothing in the article could be read to suggest it, but this is a boiler-plate attack line used by Republicans against any Democrat that dares to run for office.  So while it is not true, it also not as morally reprehensible as a "lie".  (But is a tired old line out of the "Tired Old Political Handbook", Kindle edition not available.)

The second question of relevance lies entirely in the eye of the beholder.  Supporters of each candidate look to set the terms of the race by saying what issues matter and what issues don't.  Issues for which the candidate is aligned with the electorate matter.  Issues that are discordant with the electorate do not matter.  The most interesting point here is that those who say certain issues don't matter are those who may otherwise agree with the candidate on those "irrelevant" positions.  "He's 100% right, but let's not talk about it." 

And relevance is entirely subjective and no hard-line test will suffice.  We can all agree that Michael Peroutka's pro-secessionist leanings will not come up for vote on the Anne Arundel County Council, but most of us find that position "relevant" to his pursuit of elected leadership.  Whether an issue is well-settled law or completely foreign to the office sought, voters have a right to make the decision of what is relevant, not candidates.  As candidates will often say "Voters are the boss."

The third is most important to me.  If you spend all of your time in the bottom of the box, whether that means attacking your opponent or responding to attacks, you should rightfully lose.  If we spend too much time in the lower half, the likely outcome is a depressed disaffected electorate who will no longer attend our dinner parties.  A candidate who can successfully leverage their positive message, while also making clear the differences presented by their opponent, will have voters thinking of their positive message on election day as they "pull the lever".  And I can tell you from experience that it is much harder to attach, and you spend much more time pushing, a positive message over a negative one.

But hear this - it is entirely legitimate and appropriate to "break the narrative".  To suggest otherwise is to encourage a very dangerous type of censorship relating to some of the most important conversations we have as governed citizens.

That's all for today.  Have a great Friday doing what you love! 

Ravens 26, Bengals 24