The Government You Deserve
When I sit down with a cold Old Style next to my warm fireplace and my indifferent dog, my thoughts often drift towards the big issues: injustice, war, strife, the shrinking supply of affordable housing, yo-yo economies, moral dilemmas and the never-ending debate over smoke-free bars. Before long, my wonderment becomes stuck on the single cause of the above government. Big government, small revolutionary movements, the DMV, socialist buffoonery, grassroots causes- it doesnt matter. They all share the distinctive honor of being the genus for everything thats wrong in the world. Unless of course, you happen to be stuck in some God-forsaken corner of the globe that has no government at all. Then you can simply look out your window and observe all the above problems happening all at once (except no-smoking sections.) In fact, I think its called Somalia. Feel free to stop by and elect yourself Generalissimo of the week. Let me know how it goes, if you survive until Thanksgiving.
So much has been said about governments of all shapes, colors and sizes. Thomas Jefferson is credited with saying The government you elect is government you deserve. H.L. Mencken said the same thing, but better: "People deserve the government they get, and they deserve to get it good and hard." You see, the main dig on government, especially democracies, is the seemingly innocent desire to do the right thing easily becomes confused with doing anything at all.
If you can stomach it, go to your local primary (for either party) and try to count how many times you hear some clown remark that Something must be done! No matter how centrist your town is, theres always an army of advocates who enjoy pissing in the proverbial well. The halls of grassroots democracy ring with absurd threats: Every ten seconds, half of the rain forest is lost to McDonalds! or- Children witness fifty thousand deaths on TV before they turn the channel past Sesame Street or- By the time you read this sentence, half of the human population will be wiped out by abortion!
No matter what the fringe-twits say, the message is always the same: Something must be done! Funny thing, no matter how much has already been done, something more needs to be addressed.
In a cruel twist of fate, no politician can stand up for the status quo. Despite two hundred and twenty-nine years of professional politicking from all sides of the aisle, something must always be done, almost as if doing nothing has been tried in the last few centuries. Actually, I dont think any aspiring politico has tried doing nothing as a platform. Who knows? It could be the key to a prosperous and honestly efficient government.
Alas, doing nothing equates to electoral suicide for candidates when it comes time to fill the war chest. Folks have been throwing money at chumps in bad suits that promise results in the political arena for years. However, before we add stupidity to ignorance by blaming all the problems in the world on money, lets state for the record that money buys validity for all sides, usually fairly equally.
Lets imagine weve gathered one thousand regular folks from all walks of life, proportionally similar to our population in regards to race, political affiliation, income & education levels, etc. If we surveyed them with the full spectrum of issues that might confront them every day, the results of such a survey would reveal that half of everybody agrees with one side of any given issue, but nobody agrees with everybody else on all the issues more than twenty-five percent of the time. We are, it seems, a disagreeable lot; at least we agree on that!
That is to say, if these thousand folks were polled whether the Minnesota Vikings or the Chicago Bears will win the division this year, about fifty percent would answer Vikes! and the other fifty percent would say Da Bears. But if we were informed that neither the Vikings nor Bears would win the division, thus having to choose between the Packers and the Lions, we would find each of these secondary teams would also gather about fifty percent of the vote, just not along Viking/Bears party lines. Thus, half of the Vikings fans would vote for the Pack and the other half would lean on the Lions. Similarly, Half of the Bears fans would choose the Lions over the Packers. Either way, when asked to decide on primary and secondary choices, folks preferences keep subdividing, usually about half-and-half.
If you happen to loath sports analogies as much as renowned rock journalist Jack Chester, simply replace Vikings with reproductive rights, Bears with gun control, Packers with United Nations diplomatic strategy and Lions with dubious economic stimulus package. Thus, about half of our sample is pro-choice, but a quarter of the poll would be pro-choice AND for gun control. Conversely, the other half of the womens rights advocates cant stock their closets with enough 9mm Glocks. And so on, and so on, and so on
This is where a politician has to make a stand. But its not money that makes the choice. Theres plenty of cash for everybody, no matter the agenda. Money alone doesnt buy a victory. What money does buy is the assurance that if the candidate wins, they will remember where their bread is buttered come voting time. An old aphorism puts it succinctly and well: A good politician is one who STAYS bought.
Although were all quite aware that money has a longer and dirtier reach than the examples above indicate, it should be observed the evil or at least corruption- money facilitates is rooted in expansion of various agendas, for both the advocates of change and for the maintenance of the established rule of law.
This is how a governing body begins with a simple piece of common sense legislation, and then watches helplessly with the rest of us as it morphs into an all-powerful and ever-growing government bureau that seemingly never accomplishes its original purpose. Once established, these programs always find a way to spend past their current funding, thus necessitating a robust bump in expenditure allocation the next year.
Let me give you an example. Last August, my puppy went digging in a pile of woodchips and uncovered a hive of bees. Worried that she may be allergic to bee stings, my wife and her friend got on the horn and contacted an extension service provided by the University of Minnesota. Although it was well past office hours, the phone was answered by a nice lady who informed us that you cant tell if a dog is allergic to bee stings until they get stung twice. Similarly, my fathers wife told me a story about contacting another extension service at the U of M concerning the removal of woodpeckers that were drilling holes into her houses siding. According to her, the solution provided by the extension service was as reliable as grandmas advice.
However, in both cases, the same answers were available for free when I googled canine+bee sting+allergic, and woodpecker+house+property+damage. In fact, It took less time to look it up on the net and I didnt have to navigate the University automated phone system.
If we add up the taxpayer cost of having someone answer the phone, we might find our tax resources being misspent on a superfluous bureau that is reinventing the wheel at an exorbitant cost. While this service might have been relevant ten years ago, it isnt hard to see that the world may have moved on since then. And good luck dialing the extension service for kinky porn Google wins again!
Politically speaking, this is where the fun starts. A budget-hawking righty would be prudent to point out that the doggie-health department might be ripe for review. Their political rival would go to the press and proclaim that if the tax-cutter gets re-elected, they will cut funding for education, neglecting our great University, and foster an ever-spiraling rate of unemployment. If due consideration is given to both points of view, theyre both correct. Not many folks want to pay more taxes than they have to, yet nobody wants to be known as the architect of the great demise of the American educational system. But as we will see, a candidate doesnt necessarily need to win to construct a mandate for the winner to administer- long after the race the race has come and gone.
With no clear-cut good choice what is a politician to do? No matter which side they take, half of their constituency is seeing red, and the other half feels their voice is being heard. Both sides, and their representatives in congress, feel compelled to fight for their side, yet only one can win. And if a governing body is tilting towards one side of the political spectrum, either to the right or the left, how are the issues of the day decided? Even more importantly, how much political muscle should be flexed when the political balance shifts to the other side every two-to-four years?
In 1994, the year of Newt Gingrichs so-called Republican Revolution, I found out when I stumbled (literally) into the mayoral race in my hometown: Northfield, Minnesota.
If were honest with each other, we can all admit that weve all entertained thoughts of being king for a day. I acted on the urge after enjoying a few beers with my partner in crime, Nathan Kuhlman. While drinking at the bar a little too early one sunny September afternoon, Nate and I realized that the races for mayor and city council were void of rivals. Before long, we realized that: (1) The races were open for more candidates, (2) We were old enough to run, and (3) It only cost five dollars to enter the race. With the stakes so low, how could we afford not to throw our hats in the ring?
Between the two of us, we had enough money to drunkenly mosey down to City Hall. We also had more than enough energy to run the race. But we found ourselves a bit shy in the idea department. We figured if we could get to City Hall without getting a ticket, fill out the forms and pay the registration fee, we could carefully develop a feasible platform to run on. It should be noted that Northfield politics didnt require party affiliation. Proclaiming an allegiance to either of the major political parties is irrelevant when the criteria for a candidacy requires that you do little more than live in town for thirty days.
Seventeen hours after announcing my campaign, I was awoken by the telephone. It was 6:30 in the morning. Three seconds after murmuring Hello? into the receiver, a strong, professional voice stated Goooood morning Mr. Miller! Wayne Eddy from KYMN 1040 AM radio here. Youre live on the air Please tell us all here in radio land about your decision to run for mayor. What is your platform? This was followed by silence. A silence that I soon realized was the dead air between a radio announcers animated question and a desperately hung-over candidates confusion.
It was the first opportunity to engage potential voters and the last time I was caught with nothing to say.
Before we get too far into this sordid tale, let me fill out the picture of the job before me. Northfield uses a fairly common protocol in its city charter to dictate the formal operation of its government. Known in nerdy political circles as a weak mayor system, the city itself isnt run by the agendas and wishes of the mayor. Instead, the municipalitys day-to-day operations are run by a full time city administrator. It is through the city councils procedures that the administrator receives direction. As an example, if the city council approves funding for a new sidewalk to be built along six blocks of Shakedown Street, then the administrator oversees the bids for the job, makes sure it is done to spec and pays the bill.
The weak mayor system limits the amount of power inherent in the mayors chair; every councilmans vote counts as much as the mayors. So even though the mayors vote doesnt trump any single councilmembers, the mayor gets to control the agenda, thus heavily influencing what issues are voted upon. (As a council member representing a neighborhood of the town, its hard to pass an initiative for X if the Mayor shelves it in favor of initiative Y.)
Beyond that, Northfields annual budget was hovering around six million dollars a year, half dedicated to the school system, the other half covering streets, police, the hospital, etc.
Yearly expenditures on most of the above are fairly set in stone. Snow falls every year, it costs so much to have it plowed. Not really much of a contestable issue. But where the council, and thus the mayors agenda, becomes important is within zoning laws. What comes to town, and where its built, becomes the sole domain of the city council. So it follows that a candidates platform should be centered around a vision of the city one would manage to build (or maintain), given the opportunities and liabilities presented.
Northfield, being fairly cosmopolitan for a Minnesota cow town, was full of over-educated ninnies who took it upon themselves paint too many opportunities as liabilities. Past city councils had sent terrific business investors such as IBM and K Mart out of town, fearing that none of the jobs created would be as groovy as Professor of Ceramics at Carleton College. As a result, companies like IBM took there millions of dollars to Rochester, MNa municipality that took the honors for Most Livable City In America a couple of years ago.
As far as Nathan and I were concerned, a platform for City Hall had basically painted itself. After all, we were in college, and would be looking for employment sometime soon after. What better way to insure post-graduate employment than create your own gig? Beyond that, its not difficult to rubber stamp funding for street repair.
Because Nathan and I were poor students, we took the obvious road and combined what little money we had for campaign flyers. Using a snapshot and an old Mac, we designed flyers, printed them up and spent our evenings going door-to-door. I knocked on countless doors, night after night, giving a well-rehearsed talk to anybody that would listen. While this is more fun than it sounds, it pays to understand the first rule of campaigning: College students talk politics all day and never bother showing up to vote. On the other hand, senior citizens are ignored by every walk of life, except politicians. This is because the average duffer has so little to do besides pay attention to world spinning around them. By actually listening to the mindless drivel of aspiring candidates, seniors quickly deduce which windbag is blowing smoke up their diapers. And if you take a peek where an election committee places voting booths, youll notice that they are located in schools, churches, and you guessed again- retirement homes.
Not that I ever had much of a chance to win the race, but I learned a lesson: Dont fuck with grandma. During one of the Mayoral debates- held at, you guessed it, the senior center- one of my opponents repeatedly confirmed her support for every question (read: demand for allocated expenditures). If a senior would inquire whether city hall would fund a nutrition program (free groceries for Nanna), this particular candidate would affirm a complete and thorough support to fund their wish. When another inquired about the possibility of Northfield subsidizing a free transit system to bring seniors in and out of town (outside the fucking city limits!) to shop, socialize, and I guess, attend political debates, this candidate couldnt promise the funding soon enough. Im guessing she would also have pledged money to deliver steak and lobster on wheels, if they would have asked.
Although she didnt win either, there was no doubt where she garnered a solid vote. Post elections breakdowns of votes by precinct revealed a major spike in support from precincts that hosted voting booths in retirement homes. Padre says: Lesson learned.
Squeezing seniors for votes aside, I went for the dissenters. I knew I was licked in gathering any serious momentum among our elders, but I thought some of the older crowd had endured enough ass kissing over their long lives to not want to pucker up any longer. Looking back, I may have been too relaxed: During another debate, I humorously referenced my grandpas aversion to green bananas (What happens first- the banana ripens or his funeral?) and the distrust of short-order cooks (making seniors pay in advance when ordering a three-minute egg). Neither of these gambits paid off any vote dividends, but it still gives me a chuckle as I sit with my cold beer, warm fire and indifferent dog.
Since pandering to Northfields premier special interest group was going nowhere, Nathan and I readjusted our platform to engage legitimate issues that Northfield couldnt ignore. Being masters of the obvious, we noticed that Northfield had become the home for a sizable number of Latinos. Over the years these folks had found employment, began raising families and settled in- albeit quietly. However, the various factions of the city were ill equipped to communicate when situations arose. Medical emergencies were a ball of confusions, and it got worse whenever the police became involved. (In fact, the language barrier necessitated several midnight calls to my anthropology professor at St. Olaf, who had to get out of bed and go down to the cop shop to translate for Latinos being booked.)
Seizing the opportunity, we began to use the candidate platform to promote of all things, a police initiative: The hiring of Hispanic and Spanish-speaking officers on the force. And why
not? The towns complexion (literally) had changed, and a need was there. Before long, questions posed to candidates during debates turned towards the needs of Latinos. Better yet, the answers of all the candidates begged more questions, and those answers began to legitimize the issue. Best of all, the goals proposed by candidates were reasonably attainable. Hiring a Hispanic cop isnt the hardest thing in the world, and besides, it was time. Although Nathan and I lost our respective races, a couple of the issues we raised went on to become respectable agendas for the city council to pursue.
And this is the heart of the jig, ladies and gentlemen: Losing an election becomes irrelevant if the issues raised during the race strike a resounding chord with voters. As I pointed out before, not many voters feel the same when confronted with multiple issues. Its the diversity of opinion, and the ability to express it freely that find the balance for the common cause. So even if youre an Earth First! eco-creep or a Jesus-wheezing pro-lifer, take heart: The passage of your stubborn agendas isnt guaranteed by the election of your congressional-schmuk of choice, but at least your voice is being considered for rejection in committee.
This month’s Old Style Zealots are a pair of fine young men looking to keep America beautiful, one beer at a time. This is the photo Mr. Kuhlman and I used for a shared campaign flyer 1994. Although it doesn’t look like we’re drinking our beer, they’re below the frame line, secure in our laps.
Drive safe, be nice to you’re mother, and drink your milk!