David Rodeback's Blog

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013
What American Fork Voters Taught Us, Part I

It's time to start compiling the lessons we can learn from November's election in American Fork and considering how to promote good government in its aftermath. We'll start with lessons for future candidates.

When you campaign for something or someone, sometimes the voters smack you hard in the face. It's a lot more fun to be the smacker than the smackee, but last month I was mostly the smackee. Here's what I try to do when that happens: lick my wounds (metaphorically, please!), learn what I can, and jump back into the fray.

Here at the blog, I promised no verbal or graphic wound-licking, whatever that would mean. As to the fray, I want to pen a self-congratulatory ode to jumping back into it even less than you want to read one. But let's see what there is to learn from last month's election results in American Fork, shall we?

I've been pondering this and discussion it with others since Election Night, when the returns came in. Any bad logic or other errors, not to mention any silliness that ensues, you are free to blame on me. Useful insights, if any, may have come from others in some measure; such is the nature of conversation and, especially, of thinking aloud.

We'll just get started today, but, before we're done, we'll come to some serious discussion of what to do next about roads and other challenges in American Fork. As always, your input is welcome; there's a link for that at the bottom of the page.

The Lingering Frustration

Election Day was weeks ago, but some voters' active frustration with the results seems to have an unusual half-life this time. I don't think I'm just projecting my own frustrations, either. People around town are still going out of their way to catch me, when they see me, and talk about things. They thank me for my own (clearly inadequate) efforts to inform the voters, which is very kind of them. They say excellent things about MFCC. Then, usually with no similar expression or any other prompting from me, they express their deep frustration with the majority of voters. Over and over again, I hear the same thoughts: The wisdom of the road bond was self-evident to almost anyone who took the time and trouble to learn the facts. The opponents they knew not only didn't do this; they actively resisted the facts.

In short, I'm not the only one looking at American Fork and regretting the triumph of the low-information voter. It's particularly disheartening, as some have said to me, because for the last decade or so American Fork voters have reliably preferred strong candidates to weak ones, and have been willing to vote for well-conceived bond issues where the City did a good job informing the voters, while rejecting half-baked proposals bundled with inadequate information.

Those sensible days may be gone -- of which more in a subsequent post or two -- and much too soon for my taste. The last several years of mostly-competent governance have not been enough to clean up all the inherited messes. We weren't ready for the next multi-year bout of short-sighted folly.

General Lessons for Candidates

Here are a few lessons from this election for candidates. If they sound too cynical or partisan, I'm sorry. I'm trying to look at the picture dispassionately in a sense, from the viewpoint of someone who wants to run for election or reelection in two years (which I myself do not, but someone out there will have to). However, I refuse to suffer folly gladly, just because the voters happened to prefer it this time.

Lesson one: If you're an incumbent who wants to continue governing, and you like governing a lot more than campaigning, and your opponents are lightweights, you'd still better campaign hard and smart. Otherwise, come January, you may be on the outside looking in. If I call this the George H. W. Bush lesson, will you appreciate that we keep having to learn this, election after election? My partisan opinion is that American Fork's loss in Councilman Craig Nielsen's narrow defeat is considerable. My objective opinion is that it was preventable with an aggressive campaign. That said, I confess that I didn't evaluate the zealot wave in this election as being large enough to push an excellent incumbent to the bottom and both lightweights to the top. (Note: The victors will inevitably put on some weight -- metaphorically speaking -- in the coming weeks and months. I earnestly hope it's a lot of weight and very quickly.)

Lesson two: I'm afraid that the need for an exceptionally good campaign is only increased by what may become the central political reality of the next two years. If, as an incumbent, you vote for a property tax increase which even remotely approaches what we need to fix the roads without bonding, the low-information voters and their zealot leaders will work to destroy you politically. And if you fail to make visible and significant progress toward rebuilding our failing streets, the outcome will be essentially the same, but perhaps with a bit less venom involved. In the latter case you will find yourself opposed by an alliance of loud people who want good roads but don't think they should have to pay for them, and quieter people who are willing to pay the price.

Lesson three: If you're a challenger who wants to win without the great effort required to know what you're talking about during the campaign, all you need is a well-funded group with a little campaign experience to swoop in and create a wave for you (unless you're up against solid candidates who are campaigning hard). You don't need the truth, if you have the low-information voter. Alas, this is not a new lesson, either.

Finally, here's the beauty of a 71-29 margin, if you're on the winning side. If you're a zealot who thinks your statesmanlike righteousness lifts you above the demands of the law and good manners, you can relax and enjoy a measure of immunity -- a margin for error, if you prefer. Your campaigns can place your signs illegally and vandalize the opposition's signs without much risk of costing you the election. You can say completely ridiculous things at multiple public meetings, because there aren't enough informed voters to defeat you at the polls after you do so, and the full breadth and depth of your folly will be known only to a few. You can rest easy while your partisans illegally promote your views to other voters at the polling places. (I heard several such reports, including from poll workers, on Election Day. I admit that I thought the most significant fact in those reports was not the illegal activity itself. It was that turnout was high enough for there to be a line, .)

Every candidate's supporters include a few people who don't care enough about the rules to learn and obey them, or who think being right makes breaking the rules okay. But I wonder if a zealous, self-congratulatory, fact-resistant campaign like the bond opposition this year doesn't actually encourage that lawless attitude somehow.


Subsequent posts, coming soon, will consider other lessons and discuss the prospects for future bonding -- not to mention road reconstruction -- in American Fork, and suggest what we can do going forward to prevent starve-the-government radicals from reducing us to a pathetic, Detroit-like wasteland (on a smaller scale, and by different means) -- a place where no one wants to live, where we drive on gravel streets and fantasize about reducing our fire department to a single, horse-drawn fire engine; and where we look around in puzzlement, wondering what happened to economic vigor, our tax base, and stable neighborhoods.

Was that hyperbole just now, that bit about Detroit and horse-drawn fire engines? Perhaps. But that's where the zealots' extreme rhetoric leads. We may hope that they would learn wisdom at some point and pull up short of complete societal decay, but nothing in their words suggests that this will happen soon. And if they ever do wake up, they probably won't blame themselves for the destruction they caused. They'll blame the people they elected. Or Satan, maybe.

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