Knowledge, Civility and Elections

Dr. Malcolm Cross

It’s Hog Heaven these days for us political junkies.  The political season is in full swing.  At the local level Republicans have contested races to see who will be elected county commissioner, county judge, state representative, and state senator.  Later this spring we’ll have precinct, local, and state Democratic and Republican conventions, to be followed by a long summer of campaigning before the general elections.  And let’s not forget we have local nonpartisan elections too, with candidates signing up to run for school board and city council.

The local GOP had a forum last week for its primary candidates, and one hopes we in Stephenville will have another forum for candidates in the nonpartisan elections.  But even if we don’t, we’ll be inundated by campaign commercials and literature, and of course we can’t turn around without seeing a multitude of yard signs urging us to vote for this, that, or another candidate for this, that, or another office.

But who to vote for?  To ask that question voters are asking whether candidates are really Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives.  And candidates are telling us their ideologies and qualifications, as well as their plans for us, should they win their elections.

But there are two things I want to know, and for which information, so far, is in short supply:  First, how much do candidates actually know about the issues they hawk and the offices they seek; and, second, how civil they’ll be in discharging their duties and pursuing their goals if elected.

When I first joined the city council, an early mentor told me that it was perfectly okay to dream dreams, make promises, and pursue results.  But if you didn’t know what powers you could exercise or what resources you had at your disposal, your chances for success were small, and your chances of disappointing the public were greater.  He recommended that candidates for city council, for example,  be quizzed on the size of the city’s budget; on the relative sizes of the sources of city income (sales tax, property tax, user fees, etc.); on how much money was spent on various policy areas (police protection, firefighting, public works, parks and recreation, etc.); and other facets of city government.  Similar questions could no doubt be addressed to candidates running for other offices as well.

It’s also been my observation, backed up and supported by studies of legislative bodies, including state legislatures and the U. S. Congress, that decision-making groups whose members are civil to each other operate more efficiently than those which don’t.  The reason is simple:  Most legislatures are faced with too much work to do and not enough time to do it.  Men and women who are bullies, crybabies, drama queens (or kings) gum up the works.  The trouble they make for others wastes time—time that could be better spent studying and debating the issues.

This doesn’t mean everyone should be a back-slappin’, joke-crackin’ good ol’ boy, or a hug-everything-in-sight earth mother.  Nor must everyone refuse to confront unpleasant facts or abstain from vigorous debate in order to achieve a consensus based on a less-than-thorough analysis of the issues.  But however extroverted or introverted someone is, he or she must be able to understand and practice common courtesy, to try to see an opponent’s view, to accept that opposing views are not necessarily stupid or evil or treasonous, and to remember that an opponent on one issue may be a potential ally on another issue down the line.

In sum, the best people to elect or appoint to office, whatever their party or ideology, are those who know the issues, who can help make decisions without demeaning others or believing that they themselves are demeaned if others disagree with them, who don’t gloat if they win on one issue or pout or sulk if they lose on another, and who realize that they’re likely to have to work with each other for quite a while, whatever the circumstances.

Of course, actually finding these men and women to serve us in office can be difficult.  The formats of candidate forums, from city council to presidential races, are frequently so time-constrained that little opportunity to learn of one’s in-depth knowledge—as opposed to one’s promises—usually exists.  And since most candidates for office are usually on their best behavior when campaigning, who’s civil and who’s not is frequently difficult to determine.  Only protracted periods of observing candidates and officeholders can reveal more reliable information with which we can determine our votes, and making such observations can be difficult.  But nobody said democracy would be easy.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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