When politics is a game, democracy loses

Matt Telleen

Sen. Paul Wellstone’s death last month revealed some unsettling aspects of how we think about politics and elections. The first discouraging comments came from Wellstone’s campaign treasurer, Rick Kahn. The most unfortunate thing about Kahn’s much-talked-about memorial speech wasn’t the fact that it was an inappropriate topic for an event that had been billed as a tribute to a much-respected political leader. Instead, it was the suggestion that other political leaders should put aside their principles and beliefs out of personal loyalty to a colleague with whom they had serious ideological disagreements.

The second, and probably more discouraging comments, came in reaction to Kahn’s remarks. On radio and television for the rest of the week we heard people lament the speech and the fact that it shed such a negative light on what was otherwise a touching tribute. Several people even went so far as to say that they had been leaning toward one candidate but the comments upset them so much that they were going to change their vote.

Is this how we’re choosing our leaders? Doesn’t the choice of our most important political figures deserve to be based on a little more than the inappropriate comments of some campaign staffer?

One could have reacted similarly when there were suggestions that sympathy stemming from Wellstone’s death might persuade some people to vote for his successor. This is equally troubling. Sympathy should not determine your vote any more than frustration should. Voting is the greatest power we have in a democracy. Don’t we owe it a little more respect than to make emotional decisions based on events that frankly have nothing to do with which candidate will best represent the ideas and beliefs that we hold?

These reactions probably shouldn’t surprise us anymore. Political elections in this country have become trivialized to the levels of sport, and there are only two teams. It’s the Democratic, liberal left versus the Republican, conservative right, and we are encouraged – almost forced – to take sides.

It’s been two years since one of history’s most controversial presidential elections left many Americans cynical and suspicious about our country’s electoral process. Observers on both sides of the political coin had to find it disheartening to watch officials all the way up the ladder put political allegiance above rational evaluation and intellectual analysis.

From local election committees to Florida’s secretary of state, from court rooms at the district level to the Florida Supreme Court and even our nation’s Supreme Court, everyone happened to interpret the events in Florida exactly as their political allegiance would predict. No matter which side we agreed with, we couldn’t help but find the blind loyalty to politics a little frightening.

The problem with blind loyalty is that anything admirable about it is negated by the blindness with which it is applied. Loyalty as a concept has no place in politics. The only things we should worry about remaining loyal to are our beliefs, our ideas and our values. And even these must be questioned and re-evaluated on a regular basis. They are only as strong as the logic that underlies them, and they deserve loyalty only to the extent that we can still defend them with rational thought.

But how can we blame our officials? This same partisan attitude is reflected on television and in print throughout U.S. society. It’s not just shows such as “Crossfire” that treat politics like a game. Even our news networks and newspapers seem to choose sides. Whether it’s Fox News running 20 hours per day on Gary Condit or CNN’s continued love affair with former President Bill Clinton, the media either reflects or creates the idea that everyone falls on one side or another of some philosophical coin – which is convenient, because this makes for good entertainment. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make for good democracy.

This year, as with every election year, volunteers and activists will make an effort to encourage people to vote. This is an admirable goal, but it misses the point. We must encourage people to understand why they are voting, what are the issues that they feel strongly about and which candidate most accurately reflects their beliefs. If voters did that, we would certainly have more than two parties, and voting would feel like a true choice. The power would be taken back from the political parties and special interests and given back to the voters. One thousand informed voters would always pick a better leader than a million voters following arbitrary party lines.

We need collectively to change our approach to politics. Terms such as liberal and conservative have lost all meaning and are the kind of empty rhetoric that serve to polarize voters around party loyalty instead of informing voters and allowing them to make a real choice among candidates representing the whole spectrum of philosophical approaches to governing a nation. Before the United States thumbs its collective nose at an election in Iraq where Saddam Hussein wins 100 percent of the vote while running unopposed, we should ask how far removed our own system is from this farce. Is having two candidates really so much more civilized?

Don’t vote tomorrow out of sympathy for the Wellstone family. Don’t vote tomorrow to spite Rick Kahn. Voting is too valuable to be squandered. Democracy is too important an idea to be turned into a grudge match between the same two teams every two years. Informed voters making real choices is the only way to separate a true democracy from a political game where the voters are the real losers.

Matt Telleen’s biweekly column appears alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected]