What I didn’t say to Rotary today

The agenda got overcrowded at today’s Columbia Rotary Club meeting, and Health and Happiness got squeezed out — which was kind of a relief to me, because I hadn’t come up with anything funny. Instead, this is what I had prepared:

Health and Happiness

November 1, 2010

I initially asked President Robin to make room for me on the program today so that I could do Health & Happiness on the day before the election, because I thought I’d have all sorts of political humor in my pocket.

But as the day approached, I realized this was no time to joke around. The stakes in tomorrow’s election are too great for that.

I’m not going to make any endorsements here today. If you want those, go to my blog, bradwarthen.com. But I thought I’d share some general observations about voting responsibly that I’ve picked up in 36 years of watching politics very closely.

Recently, someone on my blog commented on how young the candidates for governor are. Well, they seem REALLY young to me: Vincent Sheheen is about 3 years older than my oldest child. Nikki Haley is about the same age.

Once, governors were OLDER people. The first time I interviewed a serious candidate for governor who was younger than I was was in 1994 – it was David Beasley. That was a shock. But I’ve had to grow accustomed to it.

The youth of the candidates reminds me just how long I’ve been writing about this stuff. My first experience with covering a gubernatorial campaign was in Tennessee in 1978, and I came home to South Carolina, initially as the editor supervising the political writers, in 1987.

Let me share some of the things I’ve observed, and learned, and figured out over that time. Some of them may seem a little counterintuitive; they may run against conventional wisdom (as if there’s anything conventional about wisdom). Others are just common sense, but please bear with me while I share them anyway.

All of my career, particularly my time as an editorialist, there was one noncontroversial position that newspapers across the country embraced without fear of contradiction: Urging people to vote. You’ve all heard the pious pronouncements: No matter how you vote, go vote; it is your duty!

Well, I have over time developed a heretical notion: Not everyone should vote. And if you are so disengaged, so uninterested, that you need ME to urge you, coax you, twist your arm to get you to vote – well, you shouldn’t be voting. Yes, turnout is low in this country, and that’s a shame. But we don’t need MORE voting so much as we need better, more thoughtful, voting. If you doubt me, I point you to the nomination of Alvin Greene in the recent primary.

Fortunately, the members of this club tend to be the kind of people who SHOULD vote – you are engaged and involved in your communities. You keep yourselves informed.

But as you DO vote, please consider the following:

First, don’t vote on the basis of campaign promises. Not because the candidates won’t KEEP the promises, but because they almost certainly WILL. And there is no way that a candidate can predict what sort of situations he will encounter in office, much less predict what the wise course will be in advance. Wise leadership should never be bound and shackled by the kinds of promises people make in an effort to get a majority of people to vote for them.

So, if not promises, what SHOULD be the guide? CHARACTER. Listen to the candidate’s words. See if they are consistent with his or her actions. Note the way his or her mind works. Take heed of how candidates interact with other people, including their opponents.

Next: Study what the candidates have actually done in the past, more than what they’ve said about the future. Examine their personal and professional records, certainly. But especially scrutinize their records in public service. This is going to be the most controversial thing I say today, given the current anti-incumbent fever, but you shouldn’t vote for anyone for HIGH office whom you haven’t had the chance to observe dealing with the pressures of lower office. Because there’s no human endeavor quite like service in a political position, and until you’ve seen someone perform in that arena, you have no idea how they will perform in the job for which they are currently running.

Don’t, under any circumstances, base your judgment upon the candidate’s political party. I would say NEVER vote for anyone who belongs to a political party, but that would sort of limit your choices. So I ask you to consider a candidate’s suitability in SPITE of his or her affiliation. You have an obligation as a voter to THINK FOR YOURSELF; do NOT surrender that to a party. Parties are enormously destructive things that inject all sorts of evils into our politics, not the least of which is intellectual dishonesty. Parties demand, REQUIRE, that their adherents agree with the stupidest ideas put forth by members of their party, and reject out of hand the very best ideas put forth by members of the other party. They are, as a result, strangling the deliberative process that is the heart of our system of representative democracy.

Since you can’t really avoid candidates who belong to parties, look for the ones who seem uncomfortable in that role, who sometimes actually agree and work with folks in the other party. Those are the ones who have not been ruined by the affiliation.

That’s as far as I’m going to go. For more, please check out bradwarthen.com.

And thank you for listening. I know it’s rather presumptuous of me to stand here and give advice, and you’re all very kind to listen. Good day.

After the meeting, the head of the H&H committee came up to me and said he was going to redo the schedule so I can be on later this month. I said OK, but that will be way late to use what I had prepared for today, and right now I’m not anticipating seeing much of anything funny in the election results. I mean, if Nikki wins I’m going to be depressed about politics altogether, and disgusted with the electorate for having done something extraordinarily foolish. And if Vincent pulls it out and wins, I’m going to be very happy for South Carolina and proud of the electorate for having paid attention finally… but I don’t think I’ll see anything funny in that.

But you never know. Comedy has a way of rearing it’s silly head when you least expect it.

8 thoughts on “What I didn’t say to Rotary today

  1. Kathy

    I love this entry. I’ve never understood how people can turn their thought processes over to a political party and follow the party blindly to hell. Sadly, I think it’s often pure sloth that causes “citizens” to behave in such a clueless manner.

    I started working at the polls when I was just a kid. There I learned that many voters have an IQ of 4. Therefore, I also learned at an early age that we need more informed voters as well as more voters with enough brain power to be able to be informed. Those political parties of whom you write are really good at getting the uninformed and the “unable to be informed” to the polls where they vote straight party tickets.

  2. Kathryn Braun Fenner (Mrs. Stephen A.)

    Waaaaiiiit a second–just because I pretty much always agree with the Democratic Party and prefer its candidates to the GOP ones (hey, I did vote for Leighton Lord–fat lot of good it did), doesn’t mean I’m brainwashed or otherwise deficient in reasoning powers. I just think a state like South Carolina, and a country like the US since I have been legal to vote (1981), needs more lefties and that left-wing policies balance out the ruinous, ditch-driving right-wing ones.

    Did y’all read the pieces in Sunday’s The State about how much the average ordinary person is at risk from the lack of oversight in health, environment, safety, etc., because of budget cuts and deregulation!

  3. Doug T

    I must agree with Mrs. Fenner.

    The Dems and GOP have basic principles and philosophies.

    I’ve never heard a Republican embrace civil rights as a rallying cry.

    I haven’t heard many Dems try to attach themselves to a creed of lower taxes and smaller govmnt.

    Of course, there are some exceptions. I did vote for a Republican president once. that was enough for me.

  4. Doug Ross

    “because of budget cuts and deregulation!”

    Or because the money was spent on other things that the legislature thought was more important.

    That $100 million spent on Innovista would have covered every cut.

    I know, it’s Sanford’s fault.

  5. Steve Gordy

    Divided government led to pretty good results from 81 to 87 and from 95 to 01 (Clinton impeachment fiasco notwithstanding). I’m afraid this time will be different.

  6. bud

    I disagree. The political parties serve an important purpose. They allow people with similar political convictions to ban together and work toward a common objective. What is missing in American politics is diversity in our parties. We only have two that are viable. In 99% of all political races one of the two parties candidates wins the election. If some of the minor parties were to ever gather some momentum the apparent rancor that seems to permeate our political process would come across as more deliberative and thoughtful.

    But the biggest problem we face in the current political environment is far simpler than the over-analyzers in the pundit class make it. Simply put, the GOP is the real bogeyman in today’s political environment. This is a party that has lost it’s way and become something of a lunatic society. They push for policies that are not only wrong but downright crazy. They want to a return to the economic policies of Herbert Hoover, the environment politics of the 1890s. Worst of all they push for a foreign policy that mimicks the bygone era of the cold war; leading to our current unstable situation in the Middle-east and elsewhere.

    My dream situation would be along these lines. First, we need one or more viable third parties to smooth out the rough edges of the oligopolistic two-party system. When the Big 3 auto companies were provided significant foreign competition in the 70s auto reliability and safety greatly improved. The same would likely happen in our political process with more parties.

    Second, the GOP needs to start over. The crazy Tea Party movement needs to split off from the mainstream of the party and form it’s own rump political movement. Hopefully that would allow it to disappear into the political wilderness of the Whigs and the Know-Nothings.

    Without political parties there would be no convenient way for voters to make their way through the maze of political ideas. The parties provied a convenient and efficient way to untangle all the messy issues. I happen to find the Democratic Party pretty comparable to my own political convictions and I take umbarge on those who disparage my largely voting along party lines. I will do so this year with the exception of the US Senate Race where I’ll like vote third party or not at all. I do so not out of some blind subserviance to the Democratic party but rather because I find their candidates and policies far more in alignment to my own world view.

  7. Lynn T

    Parties pressure their members to follow the party line (the Republicans more effectively than Democrats, apparently) but I’m not convinced that this is the core of the problem in our national government today. Both parties once encompassed a wider range of individual viewpoints than they do at present. The level of polarization today isn’t a simple problem, but I think that fear, across the political spectrum, is an important underlying cause of the polarization. People on both sides fear that we have little influence on our government at national and state levels, with some justice. A lot of the differences lie in who or what is identified as causing this lack of power. Many on the right identify the problem as one of poor people wielding too much power and extracting large quantities of money from the government, thus raising taxes on the ever-virtuous folks who have had the wisdom not to be poor. I just haven’t seen that much political power among the impoverished lately.

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