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Thursday, July 28, 2011
Nine Ways to Lose My Vote


Last time I described what I generally look for in candidates for local office, focusing on qualities more than issues. I also promised my readers a list of things candidates can do or say to encourage me to vote for someone else. That's today's topic. Listen to an  audio podcast of this post.


Here are nine things local candidates have done in the past to encourage me to vote for someone else. I'm not making any of them up; I've seen them all somewhere, at least twice. I haven't seen them all in American Fork municipal elections, and this list certainly should not be taken as my commentary on any specific candidate in American Fork or elsewhere. Not all of the nine are absolute deal-breakers; I've sometimes voted for candidates whose virtues I thought counterbalanced something from this list.

I don't yet know most of American Fork's current field of candidates, and I'm avoiding their fund-raising letters and campaign web sites until I've posted this essay. That way, if any of them read this and find that they have run afoul of my pet peeves, I can truthfully say that this post is not a response to anything in the present campaign. That said, if some of you voters already share or decide to adopt some of my list as you evaluate the candidates on your ballot . . . Well, that's the point of my blogging about it, isn't it?

Because this is a list of things that candidates can do to minimize the chance that I'll vote for them, it will necessarily seem rather negative and even judgmental. It is, in any case, just one guy's opinion, and, as always, you are welcome to reprove, enlighten, and even try to dissuade me in your comments.

This list is in order of my convenience in constructing a blog post, not the relative importance of the items. And even though I know most of my readers are not candidates, I'll address candidates in the second person instead of the third, because it's less awkward and less wordy. (Trust me on that one; I tried the other way first.)

Distractions and Errors

The first three items on the list have this in common: Candidates who do these things make me think that their thoughts are distracted from local government by larger issues. These matters are quite significant on a national stage but not on the local level, at least not in my city. In at least two of the three cases, I also believe the views to be misguided, as I will briefly explain.

1. You can lose my vote by demanding that we refer to the United States only as a republic, because democracy is evil. The truth is just not that simple. We are both a democratic republic and a representative democracy -- these are essentially synonyms. Not every republic is good, and not every democracy is evil. The faction which is presently consumed by the republic/democracy question in Utah has neither history nor political philosophy firmly on its side, because its plow is set only about an inch deep in both fields. (For a lot more discussion of this, see my four-part series from last October, "What the Words Mean.")

2. You can lose my vote by explaining that you are running for local office to oppose socialism. I'm opposed to socialism, too. Real socialism is a dangerous and seductive thing, I know. I've studied socialism more than most people. It's a real threat. At present, there's a Social Democrat in the White House; and a Social Democrat is a kind of socialist. There might be places where opposing socialism would be relevant to a local election, but I don't happen to live in any of those. So when this subject comes up repeatedly in my local races, it's roughly akin to my dentist being preoccupied with my prostate and ignoring my teeth. When I hear it, I know I'm looking at an ideologue with a fundamental disconnect between ideology and local political reality, or someone who thinks he can get my vote just by pushing a few tired buttons.

There are even a few people out there who think that public streets and traffic laws are a manifestation of socialism. You cannot go anywhere near there and get my vote. If you want to oppose local government's provision of libraries, parks, arts and recreation programs, or other things which are not essential to public safety (in its most literal, physical sense), let's hear it. I'll probably disagree, but we ought to discuss that sort of thing once in a while. But if you try to end the argument, or avoid it, by invoking the magical incantation, "socialism," you'll find that the magic doesn't work quite the way you think it should. (For more discussion of socialism, see, again, my four-part series, "What the Words Mean.")

3. You can lose my vote by preaching to me about limited local government from the United States Constitution. I'm all for limited government at every level, but the US Constitution is the rulebook for the federal government, not state or local governments -- with the notable exception of the Bill of Rights, which the Fourteenth Amendment later extended to lower levels of government.

Moreover, the US Constitution created a federal government whose powers are -- or should be -- limited by the constitutional enumeration of powers even more than by the Bill of Rights. That is, if the US Constitution does not grant a power to the federal government, that power is reserved to the people or to lower levels of government. If you missed this when reading Articles I, II, or III, you'd have to work pretty hard to miss it when reading the Tenth Amendment.

Local governments are not limited by powers enumerated in the US Constitution; they have what is called a general police power. This is more than flashing lights and handcuffs; it is the general power to regulate behavior and enforce order. This, too, should be carefully limited, but it is much different from the notion of specific, enumerated powers which applies to the federal government. If you must preach limited government and wrap yourself in the US Constitution as you do so, you'll need to take great pains to convince me that you understand all this. What I usually want to ask, when a local candidate cites the US Constitution, is: What sections of the municipal code have you read lately?

Pushing My Buttons

The next three items on my list have this in common: They involve conjuring up the classic bogeymen of political dialogue. They usually appear to be grounded in a desire to manipulate the voters on an emotional level, not a rational level. In at least two of these cases, I would welcome a similar argument, if it seemed judicious and substantive -- but that is quite the opposite of pushing my buttons.

4. You can lose my vote by reducing every issue and debate to a promise never to raise taxes for anything, ever. Quite apart from the fact that in Utah truth-in-taxation has hopelessly blurred the definitions of tax cut and tax increase, these promises sound like cynical button-pushing when most candidates make them. Worse yet -- and, mind you, I'm no friend of high taxes -- sometimes refusing to impose costs on the people in the short run is the most expensive option in the long run. For example, if my city's elected officials had voted for a pressurized irrigation system more than a decade ago, when the need was already clear, we could have had one for less than $10 million, instead of buying one much more recently for $49 million, when it could no longer be procrastinated.

5. If you want to lose my vote, pushing the incumbents-are-evil button is a good way to do it. Have you ever noticed that a lot of voters feel this way? Their favorite challenger is the Great Hope, right up until the oath of the office or the first time a voter disagrees with some position or vote. Then the Great Hope turns out to have been all along just another scheming, dishonest, corrupt power-seeker. This automatic, blanket condemnation of incumbents is unworthy of people who have the blessing of self-government, but it is even more absurd when it is displayed by someone who is trying to become an incumbent. I'm not saying that all incumbents are above reproach. If you have complaints against a specific incumbent, be specific and clear. Don't try to tell me that incumbency itself is an evil thing. I know too many good people who serve in public office to buy into that prejudice.

6. If you want me to vote for someone else, it's good to talk vaguely about special interests controlling the local government. Any candidate who goes there had better be prepared to name names and interests, and to explain what was given or received in exchange for what. A candidate who just hints darkly that incumbents are secretly in bed with unspecified but undoubtedly evil special interests not only loses my vote; she attracts my active opposition, because cowardice and paranoia are poison in public office.

Unprepared or Unsuitable

These last three pet peeves of mine are often seen in inexperienced candidates. The good ones outgrow them, but some others never do. The best ones have already thought through these things and don't get caught by them in the first place.

7. You can lose my vote by using religion to promote your campaign. There are several ways to do this. One is being an anti-Mormon religious bigot, either at heart or for politics' sake. But it's actually more common for a Mormon candidate to lose my vote for religious reasons -- even though I'm a Mormon. There are pro-Mormon bigots out there, but most offenses are not so overt. More commonly, a candidate may talk or act as if everyone in town were Mormon (LDS) -- not because he's a bigot, but because he simply never thought about it, or never realized that in doing so, he was excluding a lot of people who ought to be included. Often a candidate or his supporters find a way to suggest that current or past Church leadership assignments are somehow relevant to elected office. It's also quite common for candidates to put pictures of themselves and their family -- preferably their very large family -- on their fliers, with a Mormon temple in the background.

It's fine with me if a candidate has been an LDS bishop, stake president, or mission president, or a Relief Society or Primary president, and I happen to be fond of the temple, too. But I don't respond well to people who try to exploit religion for political gain. Moreover, secular government is a different world, and not at all like running the Relief Society. The skills don't always transfer well. Above all, our community is a great deal more than the sum of its LDS wards and stakes; candidates who get my vote don't make me doubt that they appreciate this.

8. I haven't used the phrase negative campaigning yet. A candidate can turn me off with that, too, but my definition of it is different from the common one. I think a candidate's record, positions, and contributions are fair game for criticism in a campaign; of course, candidates themselves and their supporters tend to feel that any serious criticism of any of these things is negative or dirty. So what I really want to say about negative campaigning is this: I've voted against more candidates for whining about negative campaigning that wasn't, than candidates who actually engaged in it. That said, if I think you're behind some sleazy and anonymous (pardon the redundant adjectives) October surprise, I won't vote for you. And if it's not you, but your supporters, who are behind it, and you don't denounce it immediately and convincingly, my vote for you is very much in jeopardy.

9. If you show signs of taking every political disagreement personally, I will be inclined to think you insufficiently mature for public office. Sometimes the tendency to take too many things personally is a symptom of a more severe malaise, a distorted sense of good and evil. I freely admit that good and evil are players in our politics, but they are not the only players. A candidate who sees every issue purely in terms of good and evil, who thinks opponents evil because they disagree, and who views every substantive political compromise as a moral compromise needs to gain some maturity before there will be a chance of gaining my vote. Sometimes this maturity comes with time and experience; sometimes it does not.

As a corollary, if you want to speak of an issue in terms of good and evil, three precautions are necessary. First, it must not be every issue or even most issues; it must be especially important. Second -- and here I refer you to #6 above -- you must do it in language that is accessible to the whole community, not just one particular religious faction. And third, you must display the skill of condemning an evil without calling the people who disagree with you evil, or treating them as such. That's a fairly tall order, I know.

Mind you, these nine things are just my own pet political peeves. I'm not saying the people who do them are bad. I'm just saying that I'll vote for someone else. I'm also not saying that any of these things will turn off a majority of voters. Some of them may actually help your campaign, even if you lose my vote in the process. All of this is just one verbose voter's opinion, after all.

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