A Viewer's Guide To Election Season

One year from today, Americans will cast their votes for our next president. It can’t come soon enough for me. I’m already tired of the rhetoric. As we steel ourselves for twelve months of debating, speeching, posturing and polls, I’d like to offer a few tips. Consider this my Viewer’s Guide To Election Season. Or more accurately: Four Things To Remember While Trying Not To Puke

1. We Aren’t Electing A Leader

In the current arrangement, politicians aren’t leaders. They are followers.  

A leader is someone with conviction and vision. Someone who imagines a better future and mobilizes others to bring it to reality. A leader is someone who goes first and takes last. Someone who surrenders his own desires for the good of the community. That’s not what modern politicians do. In our current political landscape, elected officials may reflect or verbalize some vision of the future, but they do not generate it. For modern politicians, “casting vision” is nothing more than regurgitating whatever talking points tested best in the latest polls. If the people want a candidate who dresses in a chicken suit and outlaws green Skittles, then there will be lots of “leaders” willing to champion that “vision.”  

In a way, that’s not entirely bad. Such a system keeps elected officials beholden to the populace, or at lest the segment of the populace whose votes they need. Our current political landscape may align well with the idea of republic, but it can’t be called leadership.  

2. We Aren’t Solving Anything

One year and one day from now, half the country will feel vindicated and the other half will be checking Zillow for good deals in Canada. Five years and one day from now? Same thing. In our current political system, we aren’t solving problems and putting them behind us. If anything, we are creating more problems for the other side to dismantle in the next election cycle. This isn’t progress. It’s insanity: continuing to engage the same broken system and expecting different results.  

3. We Aren’t Championing Causes

We’re only building fiefdoms.  

Here, I have to be careful. I don’t believe that all politicians are completely soulless. At least not yet. Some of them genuinely believe in the ideology they talk about. Conservatives genuinely believe that smaller government is better for Americans. And progressives genuinely believe in legal solutions to societal problems. (Sorry, was that slanted? I really was trying to be even-handed there.)  

But while the candidates we consider may believe in a cause, it’s rare to find one who is willing to spend herself in service to it. The math is simple: if politicians win elections, they get more for themselves: more money, more power, more control. In our current system, there is no reliable way to separate a candidate’s passion for his convictions from his passion for his empire.  

The greatest leader in history said,  

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave —  just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many … But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

Next November, the ballot will be chock full of candidates who want to be first.  

4. They Aren’t Talking To You

If you lean left and you hear Republican candidates explaining their pro-growth, pro-business, pro-life agenda, you will be tempted to think they are trying to win you over. They are not. They are not at all interested in an honest exchange of ideas or an even-handed debate. Their objective is to rally their base (those people who are already 100 percent pro-growth, pro-business, and pro-life) and appear “nice” or “friendly” or “sweet” enough that a few swing votes might come their way.  

In the late 1990s, I worked for a Dallas advertising and public relations firm that represented several politicians. We used to coach candidates to approach TV interviews as rallies with an intermediary. The journalist in front of them wasn’t who they were really talking to. The journalist was a conduit to all those viewers on the late local news. Something similar is happening in political discourse. The candidates aren’t really debating one another at the debates. Their rallies and commercials aren’t really winning over voters. They’re just getting out the vote. This is true of candidates on both sides of the aisle.  

So there are four things to remember during the relentless parade of talking points to come.  

I realize my points here are negative. I admit I have a pretty negative attitude about the current political climate. I think the national exercise we’re about to engage looks more like an extended season of The Bachelor than a lucid or honest exchange of ideas. But let me end on this hopeful note: we live in an age of skyrocketing access and accountability. When everyone with a camera phone is a journalist, smoky back rooms become increasingly hard to find and political secrets become increasingly hard to keep. Political tricks are exposed for trickery and accountability lurks around every corner. Eric Snowden showed us that. 

We face massive, entrenched obstacles to political reform, but now, more than ever before, we have more powerful grassroots tools to achieve it. Such reform, like November 8, 2016, can’t come soon enough.