As I write this column, the mid-term election is only days away -- by the time you read it it will be over, or nearly so. People I talk to, from every part of the country, are unanimous in saying they will breathe a sigh of relief when it's over, regardless of their political preferences. It seems as though each succeeding campaign gets nastier, dirtier, and more negative. Couple this with the length of our political season (which my European friends find astounding), and by now everyone has serious voter fatigue.
What's amazing to me is that office-seekers and their advisors continue to do this and believe that somehow it will be effective. The documented fact is that most voters have made up their minds long before election day, and it's the relatively small number of undecided voters who will be swayed. If a voter is undecided, then presumably they are not hard core partisans, and are interested enough in the issues to think about them and not respond along ideological lines, at least for the office or question they are thinking about. Why would anyone think that a voter like that would respond to negative attacks, lies, half-truths, shaded truths, and general stridency?
Over the past decade or so a new line of research in psychology called "positive psychology" or "positive organizational psychology" (POP) has shown convincing evidence that if you want to influence or change people's behavior, it is easier and more effective to do so by focusing on what works rather than what's wrong, enhancing and building on people's and organizations' strengths and assets rather than trying to fix their weaknesses and flaws. Lest you think this is some new age California fad, the research began at the University of Michigan, and has been extensively documented.
I've seen POP applied in my own and others' work with organizations, executives, and managers, producing really amazing results. In his new book Drive, author Daniel Pink makes a convincing case for the idea that people are motivated more by their seeing meaning, purpose, and contribution in their work than by money or security, by carrots or sticks. It's reasonable to assume that this holds true in other parts of their lives as well -- certainly in family and community life, and in politics as well.
Despite this, political campaigns seem to appeal to people's worst nature. Fear, greed, protecting myself and my own at the expense of the community, racism, sexism, homophobia -- all these were themes of the campaigns this year along with lies so blatant and ridiculous that to tell them indicates a serious lack of respect for the voting public's intelligence.
Maybe it's time for a real change in our political system. First of all, let's stop pretending that party affiliation, on either side, has anything to do with certain offices. Law enforcement sheriff, the district attorney, attorney general) should be non-political -- presumably when someone is arrested or prosecuted, neither their nor the prosecutor's (nor the judge's) political ideology should matter. Financial offices -- treasurer, controller, etc. -- should be about sound finance and personal integrity, not Republican or Democrat, right or left. Local offices, some of which are nominally non-partisan on the ballot, should be genuinely non-partisan, and those such as constable that are often partisan shouldn't be.
And then let's demand that our politicians run on the issues and on their actual record in and out of office. Keep religion and ideology out of it -- if you're opposed to, say, abortion or gay marriage or if you're for those issues, give us real thinking, not slogans or religious (or anti-religious) cant. I don't know about you, but if either side on any issue can't come up with a reasoned, fact-based argument, then I think they should just say so -- they're against it on personal, moral, religious, or ethical grounds and leave it at that, not try to back up what is a personal position with specious claims or pseudo-reasoning. And be clear I'm talking about both sides of the aisle here -- I have no problem with fact-based, purpose-driven arguments, and I understand that sometimes there is purpose-driven with no basis in fact -- I can respect an authentic commitment that I don't agree with -- just don't try to convince me that it's right or wrong. It's your position, and I can respect that.
We have a short breather until the run-up to the next elections in 2012. Can we use it to try to remember that every one, Republican or Democrat, right or left, straight or gay, man or woman, white, yellow, brown, and black, is an American and has those rights the founders felt were inalienable. Can't we all try to get along?
This post also appeared in the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza.