The prospect of dinner conversations veering into politics during the holidays boosts booze sales more than the anticipation of happy toasts or good cheer. At least, that’s my theory.
I say that as someone who comes from a family with a variety of political viewpoints. And who has more than once poorly finessed turning a conversation to tablecloth patterns and vacuum cleaner reviews, all in an attempt to take the wheel when the table chatter starts veering toward politics. Because almost always, nothing good comes from those conversations.
Facebook posts seem to have largely replaced the many political emails I used to receive 10 years ago. The kind urging me to support political causes that would require hell freezing over before I’d actually give five seconds of consideration. Some of my family members are not my Facebook “friends.” They know what I do for a living and I know where they stand. I figure it’s best for all concerned if we spare each other more daily aggravation and possible dosage increases in blood pressure medications.
Sure, I’m missing out on photos of adorable babies throwing their first tantrums, tips for cooking strip steaks in muffin tins and workout victory photos — and they’re missing out on my various rants — but it’s not like we’re completely disconnected. I’m willing to forfeit certain parts of their lives in exchange for family peace …
Recently, I received an email from a conservative family member blasting Democrats for being “tax and spenders” and making California too expensive to live in, even mentioning some of my former clients by name. This is a family member whose life experience has been vastly different than mine in time, place and societal expectations. It would take a lot on both our parts to find common ground.
So I sent a response not arguing with his views but expressing how difficult governing seems to me, from my perspective of having seen politics up close for 20 years. And if there is any silver lining to witnessing a president who has no filter and little (if any) capacity for empathy — and whose term will almost certainly face an ignominious end — maybe it is acknowledging that politicians are people, and that we should “think bigger” about the people we put in positions of power.
First of all, someone must be willing to run. Could I run? I don’t think so. Most politicians start at local office, and I don’t have the patience to sit for hours and listen to public comment. There are so many people with many legitimate grievances, but have you ever considered sitting through hours of testimony from wealthy people complaining about how the quality of their lives will be ruined because a proposed apartment building in their neighborhood will cast a shadow on a nearby park for precisely three minutes a day — while people behind them in line to speak include mothers whose sons have died at traffic stops and seniors who have been evicted and have no place to go? How much patience do you have?
While we all know of politicians who run for their own self-aggrandizement. But it’s usually much more complicated. Many want to make a difference but have no idea what running for office entails; how to inspire people to help them win; how to build coalitions necessary to get anything done once they have won. Sometimes, they fall very short and don’t deserve our sympathy and, instead, deserve to be voted out. But all are boxed in a system of raising money, because the post office doesn’t take IOUs. Plus, it would take years to knock on every voters’ door and talk to them in person in most cases — even for many local officers.
If and when you win, you have to work with your colleagues who have their own agendas, because math is involved. You either reach a majority to pass your legislation or you don’t. There are no consolation prizes.
Democracy is messy.
A 2015 poll by the Pew Research Center showed that as cynical as we can be as voters, most of us still acknowledge some level of agency: We may hate the system but can’t deny that we have at least some ability, on some level, to impact our government. Whether that is the impact of our vote, or the freedom to tell our stories in ways that may impact how others vote, it counts for something. So we may be close to throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but we aren’t there just yet.
Even though I’ll never agree with my relative on his policy positions, we both agreed governing in a democracy with many voices is hard, and most politicians who don’t have fiery rhetoric or the simplest solutions might just be a little more honest and are doing the best they can. Maybe we need to stop looking for heroes and find a way to elect more people to handle a very tough job.
Winston Churchill once said of democracy: “It is the worst form of government … except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” It sure seems that way, but as voters, we have to acknowledge our own role in the expectations we create and the unrealistic simplicity we crave.
Maureen Erwin is a Bay Area political consultant. Most recently she led Sonoma County’s Measure M, which will create the largest GMO-free growing zone in the U.S.