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Montana Viewpoint
PETTINESS IN POLITICS
October 15, 2007

I see by the paper that all sorts of hay is being made out of fundraising information reported on statewide candidates’ recently released campaign reports. These campaign reports are awaited with the legendary bated breath by political parties in hopes that they will reveal that a candidate of the opposing party got a campaign contribution from Osama bin Laden. What this particular go-‘round has come up with is that one candidate got a lot of money from people who don’t live in Montana, and another candidate took a loan from a relative that exceeded the allowed amount.

Well, apparently this is a big deal for some folks, but frankly, I don’t care. And the reason I don’t care is not because the issues under discussion—if I can apply such a dignified term to this squabble—aren’t important; I don’t care because the way the issues are being “discussed” has all the earmarks of five year olds fighting over toys in a sandbox. I am happy to pay attention to debate on issues that assume that I am capable of understanding rational arguments made calmly, as if by adults. I tend to dismiss sandbox squabbles out of hand because the very tone of the arguments diminishes whatever true significance the issue might actually have.

I don’t think I am the only one who feels this way, which might go some distance toward offering a clue as to why the American public does not rate politics at the top of their list of things to pay attention to.

I have also witnessed the weeping and moaning of politicial public relations people saying the press doesn’t pay attention to their press releases. I have seen the press releases the press doesn’t pay attention to, and I wouldn’t pay attention to them either. They are full of either self-aggrandizing rhetoric or self-serving blame directed at the other party. Imagine receiving a constant stream of press releases like that, as the press does. Even if there is something noteworthy in one of them, its importance would be overlooked because of the pettiness of all the others.

Sometimes it seems to me that the public relations folks from the political parties are not attuned to the idea that important issues, thoughtfully discussed, will be paid attention to. These are people, I take it, who have never had to referee a whining match between children.

The whole idea, of course, is to make your party look like the good guys by pointing out the bad parts of the other party, but it doesn’t work. At the very best it makes your party look like the lesser of two evils, which is not the image I look for in a political party.

Political parties are hurting the institution of democracy by assuming that Americans need help in understanding the stupidest of issues. Here’s why I believe that. Years ago a close relative of mine and I were watching an interview with Helmut Schmidt, who was at that time the socialist leader of West Germany. It was a thoughtful interview, and Schmidt was answering the questions candidly; taking credit for successes and assuming responsibility for mistakes. He gave the pros and cons of pursuing certain kinds of public policy. I don’t remember him even mentioning the opposition party, let alone blaming it.

This relative, who had been voting for Southern segregationist candidate George Wallace for the past two presidential elections turned to me and said, “Why can’t we have politicians like that?” It wasn’t that she agreed with him, but she appreciated it that he treated voters like adults.

We do have politicians like that in Montana and the Nation. Politicians who would like their voice heard over the din of dueling accusations thrown about by their respective parties. I believe that if you want your political party to look good, you do good things. If you want your policies respected, treat your audience as if they were adults capable of independent thought, because they are.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620

jim@jimelliott.org