David Rodeback's Blog

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Friday, October 2, 2009
If You Want My Vote (Part II)

Two more essential principles for local candidates who want me to take them seriously.

This is the second in a continuing series discussing things local candidates can do if they want to get my vote -- or, perhaps more accurately, if they want me to take them at all seriously, so they might eventually get my vote. It's still remedial. In the first installment, I explained two principles:

1. Local means local.
2. Show up -- in advance.

Here I add two more:

3. Get your facts straight.
4. Check your conspiracy theories at the door.

These two may actually be slightly different expressions of the same principle. In fact, both might be construed as restatements of the "show up" principle, as I described it last time. But each deserves some attention of its own.

3. Get Your Facts Straight

Never underestimate the difficulty of getting your own name right, not to mention the name of the city (or other entity you propose to lead), when you're standing in front of a crowd or a camera or putting your words in print. However, I'm thinking of other facts at the moment.

Zeal is not an adequate substitute for accuracy; nor is anger, fear, patriotism, or any of the other passions. Getting your facts straight in the sometimes overheated world of politics is an excellent way to prove to me the depth and subtlety -- not to mention the existence -- of your understanding of the issues and operations of local government. To wit:

If (like most candidates nationwide, I suspect) you'll be criticizing some tax increase, for which your city council or school board or some other governing body voted, you'll want to know which members of that body opposed the increase, especially if your opponent was one of them. Otherwise, you'll paint with too broad a brush and -- forgive me for being blunt -- you'll look stupid. In public.

While we're on the subject of tax increases, you'll want to separate yourself from the knee-jerk you-raised-my-taxes-I'm-running-against-you candidates by knowing (1) the correct percentage of the increase and (2) the reasons or arguments raised in its favor. You'll want to attack the latter, if you can do so with credibility, not just the fact that there was an increase.

I'm going to skirt the edges of my own stated rule that I won't name candidates in this series and offer a local example. I was opposed to all five of the bond issues the mayor and city council of American Fork proposed for last November's ballot, all five of which quite predictably failed. In fact, I was rather verbosely opposed, though not as a candidate. It started with a post entitled, "Amateur Hour at City Hall" -- a title I liked so much that I used it again for a sequel. And that was just the beginning.

But, candidate, if you're going to castigate those elected officials even for proposing those bond issues, you'll want to know which of your opponents, if any, actually opposed them, either because of their timing, their merits, or some other reason. And its not as simple as examining voting records, if you can even find them in a local election.

Sometimes a legislator (at any level of government) will push hard behind the scenes for a proposal to be changed, expanded, scaled back, or tabled before a vote. In such instances, even a final vote may not come close to telling the whole story. Helping to pass an imperfect proposal is sometimes an effective and important way to block the passage of a much worse proposal. We might say that there's a (very brief) time for considering which type and size of fire extinguisher to use on a growing fire, assuming choices exist; then it's time to fight the fire, even if the politically viable size of extinguisher is not ideal.

Back in American Fork, if you really want to impress me as a candidate coming in from the outside, show me that you understand what some elected officials didn't: that the questions on the November ballot were whether to fund the projects in a particular way (general obligation bonds), not whether to do them at all. A word to the wise: before you fling too many verbal spears at the City for proceeding with some of the projects anyway, be sure (1) they're the same projects, and (2) they really were funded by a tax increase, not, say, federal stimulus dollars. Otherwise, sooner or later you'll look stupid -- in public and on the record. (Here's a hint: If the bond issues failed after the last tax increase, you probably won't want to argue that the projects were funded by increasing your taxes, unless your need for my fourth principle, of which more below, is particularly dire.)

If you want to knock me over, at least figuratively, show some caution about the whole subject of tax increases in Utah municipalities, and explain why. Explain that Utah truth-in-taxation laws are subtly perverse. Tax rates can decrease from year to year, but the law will require a municipality to treat and publicize the change as an increase. It is necesssary for a municipality to approve a small tax increase every year just to break even in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars, but no Utah municipality I know is willing to do that.

We may be on the verge of witnessing a new but similarly perverse variation next year. Tax rates may increase, but state law may permit the increase not to be treated as such, or even allow it to be called a decrease. If you want to know more, see my article on the certified tax rate. (It's complicated.) At least one fairly popular, local state legislator didn't grasp this last time I asked him about it -- and I don't mean the estimable John Dougall, who is not a candidate this year, so I didn't just break my rule.

Moving on . . .

4. Check Your Conspiracy Theories at the Door

Conspiracy theories make for economical arguments. They save their proponents the effort of critical thinking and careful study. They're also dramatic and portentous; some people like that. They make it easy to dismiss anyone who disagrees with you; dissenters and skeptics are either dupes or members of the conspiracy.

Conspiracy theories are not altogether impotent, to be sure. They resonate with a certain percentage of the electorate, including many of the people who don't vote because they think the whole system and everyone in it is corrupt. (So for them there's no point in voting, and for you, candidate, there's little point in appealing to them.) But let's be clear: your conspiracy theories will cost you my vote, and I'm fairly certain they'll cost you more votes than that.

If you ask me whether I believe, in theological terms, that there is a grand conspiracy of evil which labors "to overthrow the freedom of all lands, nations, and peoples" (that's from the Book of Mormon, Ether 8:25, to be precise) . . . I absolutely do. And it is both theoretically possible and practically inevitable that this devilish conspiracy has some organized political manifestations, not to mention political aspirations.

But the fact that you don't like a thing or haven't bothered to think it through and understand it, or it doesn't go your way, does not constitute evidence that there is a conspiracy. Amazingly, I must also point out that the absence of evidence of a conspiracy does not itself constitute evidence of an especially well-concealed conspiracy -- no matter how often that illogic is used. Nor does the existence of a real conspiracy somewhere prove the existence of every imaginable conspiracy.

Forgive the momentary departure from local matters, but I don't think it makes sense to call the present assaults on freedom in our national politics a conspiracy or a "secret combination" (to use a term with some currency here it Utah). The reason is simple: no one seems to be hiding these attacks. They're quite overt. So maybe it's a campaign; I won't call it a conspiracy.

Perhaps dark conspiracies would be as prevalent as some people think they are, if they were readily sustainable. But to hide any meaningful conspiracy involving more than a few people, for any significant length of time, is practically impossible. Yet some among us persist in thinking that conspiring is easy and even automatic, as if proximity and conspiracy were synonyms.

Here are a few pet conspiracy theories I've collected in local politics in various locales. (As a practical, local matter, I disbelieve them all.)

  • Candidate A is a Mormon (or Catholic or Jew or Muslim or born-again Christian). This proves that he is part of a conspiracy to use government power to further the interests of his church and ultimately to force his beliefs upon everyone. Or its opposite . . .
  • Candidate 666 is not a Mormon. This proves that she is part of a conspiracy to use government power to destroy the Mormons. (Back to the alphabet now. The brief departure was irresistible.)
  • Candidate B is a retired local businesswoman and is friendly with candidate C. Therefore they are conspiring to use city funds to enrich local business D.  They're probably keeping two sets of books.
  • Current officials E, F, and G make more money and live in larger houses than I do, therefore they are conspiring together to use their offices to enrich themselves and to impoverish the rest of us.
  • A personal favorite: I ignored 14 different official communications on local issue H, therefore my elected officials (I through M) are trying to hide what they're doing from the people who elected them. (Can you stand one more, real enough, but with the names changed to protect the allegedly innocent?)
  • Blogger N mocks conspiracy theories and the weak and sensational minds who believe and proclaim them. He is therefore is either part of or duped by all the above conspiracies and many, many more. Given an opportunity, he would probably vote for Satan.

Can you see that conspiracy theories are fabulous labor-saving devices? They can save you the trouble of careful thought, of getting to know people, of studying complex issues, policies, and procedures -- and their interrelationships. They are a favorite food of political couch potatoes. You know them, the ones who've never played the game, but can read a pass coverage from 3000 miles away, better and more quickly than a Pro Bowl quarterback.

Conspiracies also, quite conveniently, allow you to dismiss without reflection the thoughts and arguments of your opponents, who are by definition not sincere, but conspiring. In a particularly virulent infections, they allow you to dehumanize your opponents in your own mind, which in turn can justify mistreating those dehumanized . . . things . . . in a host of ways, ranging (historically) from simple slander to wholesale slaughter.

Much that is ill happens in our politics because of . . .

  • bad ideas mixed with good intentions,
  • bad intentions combined with good skills,
  • good intentions combined with bad skills,
  • zeal unmixed with knowledge or wisdom,
  • individual humans' weaknesses and vices,
  • a thinly-veiled lust for power, and
  • the desire to advance oneself and harm one's opponents.

In most cases, these causes in and of themselves, absent anything reasonably called a conspiracy, are sufficient to account for whatever you think is bad in our politics. When there are occasional exceptions, we need hard evidence, not just your pious and paranoid accusations.

So one bad thing that won't happen in our politics is my seriously considering voting for you, if you insist on bringing your conspiracy theories into the room.

Discussion of additional principles is coming soon, including a soft form of the conspiracy argument, the unfounded assertion that Candidates O and P are in the pockets of unnamed but presumably malevolent "special interest" Q.

M. Ryan Taylor comments (10/3/09 via Facebook):

Conspiracy theories are the only thing entertaining about politics . . .

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