The YouTube video gone viral of four-year old Abigael Evans crying after listening to a news story on the presidential race beautifully captures our collective political temperament. Abigael, who lives in the battleground state of Colorado, apparently melted down after hearing a news story about the candidates on National Public Radio. The whimpering girl said ”she was tired of “Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney.” Out of the mouths of babes. After a prolonged and grueling political season, the adults in the room are tired too, if not on the verge of tears.
It’s been a long and scary political season and Kentucky has seen its share of overheated contests at all levels. State Rep. Ryan Quarles (R-Georgetown) is being blamed for a teen suicide. State House candidate Kelly Whitaker (D-Hickory) has been labeled a “godless liberal.” In the 6th Congressional District race, one TV ad has a child dressed up as Congressman Ben Chandler (D-Versailles) and telling an elderly lady who is giving him candy that Chandler is “trying to scare old people like my grandma.” Accusations in many races are flying faster than a witch on her broom and the vitriol brewing in the minds of cantankerous political operatives have put electioneering in competition with Halloween as to which is the most frightening.
The electorate understands the competitive nature of politics but everyone can do without the mudslinging and zombie-like politics where candidates tear into one another. Politicos haven’t gotten that memo this election season, but we can hand deliver them the message on November 6 by rewarding those candidates who are respectful, reject name calling, shun labeling and decide to leave scare tactics to the Haunted House operators. Most will say they are ready for the standards of conduct to be elevated but few seem willing to do the heavy lifting to get us there.
The problem runs deeper than just telling candidates they need to do better. The question is: what have we done to raise the bar? What have you done? As much as we love to blame politicians for our ills, we the people need take off our own figurative masks, look into the mirror, and realize that our leaders are a reflection of us—OK, minus the perks and nice clothes.
We get angry when politicians marginalize and run opponents into the ground but how many of us assassinate the character of a disagreeable coworker or an irritating neighbor? There is wailing and gnashing of teeth over votes and policies newly enacted but how many failed to vote in Kentucky’s May primary? The answer is 76 percent. How many gripe over a bad law yet aren’t registered to vote? If apathy is brother to one who destroys then cynicism is the brew that poisons the wellspring of free republics. When the people don’t care enough to vote, then neither will their leaders care enough to listen to them. When the electorate resorts to blame and imbibes bitterness, it cuts itself off at the knees and is left crippled when it must act.
We live in the freest nation on the face of the earth and enjoy unlimited opportunity to engage in the political process. We can speak out, assemble, assist candidates and even run for office ourselves. Our system of government is built upon the idea that political power resides in each and every person— “government by the consent of the governed.” So it’s time to stop blaming the unions, corporations, Wall Street, and big money for co-opting our politics. In the information age, one has the ability to bypass traditional media and search out the candidates and the issues, if one is willing to take the time. That’s a big if. Also, early and absentee voting makes it more convenient and does away with any remaining excuses.
Secretary of State Alison Grimes is predicting a record turnout this election with 62 to 64 percent of registered voters going to the polls on November 6. That’s great, but what will we do to restore civility and integrity in the political process? Halloween is over, and children like Abigael Evans are depending on adults to put away the ugliness and model a better politics.
Richard Nelson is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, a non-partisan public policy organization. He resides in Cadiz with his wife and children.