POSTED ON OCTOBER 3, 2012:
The Party's Over
Pondering Tulsa's new nonpartisan world
Ready to pick local elected leaders in a completely different way?
Maybe in a way that might make them more responsive -- maybe in a way that might actually be fun? Anyone for the T-Town Beer/Betterment Caucus? Does the "Green Streeters" sound intriguing? How about the Jazz/Hackers Coalition, the Robinson(Jackie)/Ruth (Babe) Alliance or Underdogs United? How 'bout the Midtown Myrmidon's or the 21 Street Society? Imagine that these groups or gatherings like them, held citywide meetings next summer and aggressively recruited and endorsed candidates for city council and mayor when the first contests to use T-Town's new "non partisan" election machinery gets underway.
The T-Town Clash
In Tulsa, we witnessed a monumental mayor/city council clash for much of the first two and a half years of Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett's tenure. Weirdly, local party kinetics had very little to do with this disaster. The mayor himself and a set of semi-toxic city councilors -- most gone thanks to their own retirements and voter rejections -- produced this sad waste of time and opportunity. But in a real disconnect, Tulsa voters, at the urging of some Tulsa "biggies" earlier this year, proclaimed via a successful party "banning" proposition that "we don't need/won't have no stinking parties." And so now party labels are banished from city election contests.
Political parties: bickering, brutal bulldogs, always battling battle hogs: That's what most people think about when asked to talk about donkeys and elephants -- Demos & Repugs.
Yeah, arguing and always angry, always angling forces -- that's what comes to mind.
The outright dysfunction at the national level over the last three years has stalemated economic recovery, halted action on climate change and immigration reform, and forestalled attending to America's rotting airports, bridges, highways and other critical competitive essentials.
Sometimes our current political landscape looks downright crazy.
Consider this: the individual healthcare mandate, the core of "Obamacare," is the touchstone for Mitt Romney's healthcare initiative in Massachusetts and was consciously developed by the conservative, Republican oriented Hoover Institute as an alternative to the hated HillaryCare initiative of the early '90s. And how is it possible that "cap and trade," a Republican crafted notion to use market-like mechanisms to pull down globe-warming carbon omissions, is now hated widely in Republican circles and routinely depicted as a plot devised by leftist Democrats and environmental extremists?
Clinical psychologist/neuroscientist Drew Westen in his 2007 book The Political Brain writes about the outsized power that emotional dynamics plays in shaping our political instincts. The same is true in significant measure for our attachment to parties. Westen's research used functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) brain scanning on hundreds of test folks and highlights the supreme importance of emotional demons and other non-rational drivers in the cogitation we use to pick candidates and assess the issues of the day. The Political Brain and a corpus of kindred works should give pause to anyone who argues that parties -- and our fixation nationally and elsewhere with them -- is an aberration: not something that's an integral part of who we are as human beings.
I've written about Tulsa's embrace of "non partisan" contests in earlier UTW columns. Basically we have a situation where the abolition of party labels in local election may give humongous competitive sway to people with famous names, candidates who've run in high visibility elections before, folks with lots of access to money and the famous: media celebrities, athletes, car salespeople with long playing television campaigns and others. So will Tulsa be better off as a consequence of this big change to our election machinery?
Some of the empirical evidence suggests that voter turnout, especially among low-information voters and people who simply don't participate very broadly in politics, will be lower as a consequence. This is never a good thing in a democratic society.
And the evidence from comparative studies done between partisan cities and nonpartisan places is consistent, at least in part, with this body of evidence. So the challenge in Tulsa will be to forestall this outcome. How should T-Town folks of good will help provide clues to voters who want to effectively navigate the agendas, qualifications and claims of local candidates "without labels?" This is higher ground work that will be more difficult than ever. The media will no doubt make an effort to provide some info, but the candidates themselves will also have to make an effort. However, exciting Tulsans via some crisp organizing strategies and some imaginative mobilizing efforts could make things a lot easier and maybe even create some fun in our local contests next year.
So with some imagination and a bit of unconventional organizing, Tulsa might be able to get beyond the low turnout, exceedingly confusing contests and other big problems that so called "nonpartisan cities" have experienced. Tulsans can, and should, avoid having to deal with a galaxy of Orwellian ghost candidates promoting groups like Tulsans for a Better Tulsa (TBT), or Tulsa Citizens for a Better Tulsa (TCBT) -- I made these up -- to elect city councilors and our mayor next year. These groups, in other towns, usually have the backing of real estate and banking interests but have no real connection to regular voters, neighborhoods or people-oriented issue coalitions.
The work of political writer Sasha Issenberg and his new book The Victory Lab is also material here. Issenberg takes a fascinating look at controlled studies that established that neighborhood outreach on "steroids," use of voter commitment cards, deft use of social networks and other high-tech/high touch outreach can secure victory for nimble candidates and ground level political players. He also looks at the increasingly feeble power of conventional strategies like television, radio and print ads -- and how they simply don't work very effectively in our new Internet mediated/Facebooked world.
Tulsa's switch out to non partisan elections might not have been a really wise thing: But we should take Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's advice and not let our new "crisis" go to waste. We should look to stuff like Issenberg's new work and other more agile ways of thinking about our local elections that go beyond the binary world of national politics and old-style coalitions -- and point to what could be a way more interesting, cooler political landscape.
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