I believe in science. So I am reasonably sure that no matter what the outcome of the elections tomorrow, the sun will come up on Wednesday, November 9.
We are all familiar with the apocalyptic tone of the national debate. What’s surprising is that even local issues have taken on a similar tenor – as if the outcome of tomorrow’s balloting will determine the fate of Santa Monica once and for all.
At both the national and local levels, much of the heat generated in this long election campaign seems to focus directly on one word: “Trust.” There are many villains fingered for the erosion of trust among voters: elites are branded as self-serving or even corrupt; reckless demagogues are blamed for exploiting fears and grievances; media outlets are criticized for negative reporting and sensationalizing trivia; even voters are blamed for being poorly informed or blatantly prejudiced. Regardless of the truth of these claims, the fact remains that a remarkable share of the electorate is angry, sullen and, most of all, mistrustful.
Again, at one level this is surprising. At the national level, no election has been this polarized (nor the two major party candidates this unpopular) since 1968. That was a time when the nation faced far more crippling crises. While Middle East wars and terrorism haunt us today, just 26 Americans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan all this year. In 1968, there was a war raging that saw 543 Americans killed in action in Vietnam in just one week. While the deaths of several African-Americans at the hands of police and the death of several police officers killed in the line of duty have sparked agonized national debate, in 1968 in the week following the assassination of Martin Luther King riots flared across 125 cities, leaving 39 dead, more than 2,600 injured, 21,000 arrested and more than $100 million in damages to inner city businesses and neighborhoods.
Of course, 1968 culminated a long run of economic expansion – the longest boom in America during the period since World War II. Today, we are still recovering from the Great Recession, with many Americans either feeling economically left out or insecure – or both. We’ve never been so bombarded with messages to consume – even as incomes for many have flattened or declined. Still, the exaggerated sense of crisis dominating campaign rhetoric at the national level seems out of proportion to the actual state of the union. It underscores that we are living a new reality -- an overstimulated society, constantly plugged into other people’s opinions and experiences. It doesn’t matter how many “friends” we have on Facebook, we can feel isolated – and unable to understand or accept people outside our circle who see the world differently. Perhaps that helps explain why so many feel disenfranchised, marginalized, oppressed, and/or betrayed by “the system.”
So too at the local level. Without wading into the validity of the various political claims in this election cycle, there is an exaggerated sense of alarm -- and an overheated rhetoric of mutual mistrust in our community. As with our nation, this level of polarization is troubling and the election results will not put an end to the challenge posed by the divisiveness.
Part of the problem seems to be with our attitude toward democracy itself – as Pogo used to say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The “system” that is so mistrusted is the fragile structure we’ve erected to govern ourselves. It is not perfect, but no perfect system has ever been devised. In a column earlier this year, New York Times writer David Brooks observed:
Politics is an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile or compromise those interests, or at least a majority of them. You follow a set of rules, enshrined in a constitution or in custom, to help you reach these compromises in a way everybody considers legitimate.
The downside of politics is that people never really get everything they want. It’s messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled. Politics is a muddled activity in which people have to recognize restraints and settle for less than they want. Disappointment is normal.
But that’s sort of the beauty of politics, too. It involves an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their vantage point and try to balance their needs against our own.
Brooks’ observation, it seems to me, applies directly to the current battle over growth and development at the ballot box in Santa Monica (and soon in Los Angeles.) With a looming “yes” or “no” vote on this complicated issue on Tuesday’s ballot, both supporters and opponents have stoked fear and anxiety, playing into the overall climate of mistrust (to be fair, each side blames the other for this unfortunate dynamic.)
Of course voters have choices. They can default to the atmosphere of mistrust and vote their emotions. They can turn away in disgust at the exaggerations of both camps. Or they can endeavor to cut through the overheated rhetoric, read the fine print of what they are voting on, listen to credible voices of reason and seek to make an informed choice that recognizes that we all have to “recognize restraints and settle for less” than we personally desire.
Democracy, as Churchill observed, is the worst system ever devised for government – except for all the others. Voters make mistakes and so do the people they elect. This is neither surprising nor the end of the world – nor the destruction of life as we know it. Our system is imperfect, just like us. And the only way to improve it over the long run is to work together in genuine dialogue between elections to solve the complicated, real challenges we face – and remember we have a lot to be grateful to live in a community as blessed with advantages as Santa Monica.
That’s the work that lies ahead starting November 9.