By Keenan M. Jones
The election is over, and for many of us, that is cause for a great sigh of relief. No more TV ads paid for by PACs. No more radio spots smearing the other candidate. And the yard signs that have littered neighborhoods will be coming down, at least until the next election cycle. So we should have at least a couple months … oh wait, yeah, the next election cycle has already started.
In 2016, Indiana voters will cast their ballot for the next governor and the next president. With those races having already been populated for months with a multitude of candidates, the partisan rhetoric and “PENCE MUST GO” yard signs are here to stay for another year.
Why is it that there never ceases to be an election cycle? Voters are stuck listening to news not about how our elected officials have solved an issue or determined the best compromise to effectively govern, but about who was caught inappropriately texting interns, who improperly stored emails, etc. It’s these latter instances that will be aired over and over again, increasing in volume and frequency as elections near, and never really subsiding. America is stuck in an incessant election cycle. It’s because the focus has shifted from compromise and governance to jockeying for votes. And jockeying for votes has become less about ideas and more about pandering to the political party base. It’s all about the party.
Being all about the party has scary consequences. Straight-ticket voting allows parties to secure votes without actually having their candidates engage voters. In Marion County, the parties had commandeered the judicial-election process so much that the 7th Circuit had to step in and say that voters, not parties, needed more say in the process. Most importantly, such focus on the party makes it hard to see that we are all on the same team, trying to make this country as great as it can be.
The consequence of ever-ready partisan rhetoric is that this country is in constant campaign mode because candidates want to show the party base that they are the most partisan. There has been a polarization of candidates’ ideologies to the point that next year we could very well see a self-identifying socialist square off for president with an egomaniacal capitalist who has little regard for individual liberties.
When I moved to Indianapolis after law school, I attended local political events in an effort to establish a network. I became a precinct committeeperson, responsible for knowing the residents in my precinct and their concerns. I was charged with canvassing neighborhoods for voter registration and support. But I wasn’t asked to go to every house and engage voters on the issues and collaborate on ideas as to how the party candidate could address their concerns. I was asked to knock only on doors of voters who had voted for the party in the most recent elections to ensure that the voters that showed up on Election Day would vote for the party.
That’s not the democracy I remember learning about in high school. I remember a government that cherished citizen engagement and a fully informed public. Not a citizenry split in half based on generalized political ideologies and asked to stay home on Election Day by the other half of the country.
But what can be done? How can the system be changed? The way in which millennials are changing many industries – the sharing economy – could be the answer. Uber allows people to get around without buying a car or climbing into a cab. Airbnb allows people to see new parts of the country without having to book a hotel room, sometimes renting out a couch just for a night. And crowdfunding websites have helped defray medical expenses and kick-start new projects. The sharing economy diverts attention from large organizations and focuses on what we can offer one another as individuals.
In the political realm, this translates to not identifying with a party, which more and more people are already doing. Unfortunately, this tends to result in political apathy, and fewer and fewer votes on Election Day. Instead of backing out altogether, we should consider backing specific candidates, not blindly supporting a party candidate. Yes, this requires more work: learning about all of the candidates’ positions, or at least those about which you are most concerned; taking time to vote for every position, ignoring the urge to quickly vote straight-ticket; and considering joining that candidate’s campaign team.
Then, after being politically engaged for a while and seeing how the process works, you may have the experience to run for office as a lawmaker yourself. Again, this may be harder to do without a history with the party, but you will have built a network of supporters and shown that you are not tied to a generalized political ideology, which more and more voters (especially younger voters) appreciate.
Interestingly, there is another hurdle to getting into office: We’re lawyers. In 2011, The Chronicle of Higher Education discovered that just over 17 percent of state lawmakers had graduated from law school. Even in the state with the most lawyer-legislators – Texas – lawyers are outnumbered 3 to 1. This stigma is real. When I was still a precinct committeeperson and told my ward chair that I was an attorney, he recoiled at the thought of “another lawyer” in politics. I didn’t tell him that Indiana actually has few lawyers in politics and that lawyers have a skill set – interpreting and arguing the meaning of the law – that might actually help in drafting the law.
While it may seem like it’s not worth overcoming these hurdles – age, partisanship, our profession – being engaged in the political process has many rewarding benefits: a strong network of professionals; being part of a civically engaged, well-informed public; and an opportunity to help this country rise above the partisan rhetoric and start focusing on reasoned ideas to progress this country forward.•
Keenan Jones is a member of Lewis Wagner LLP’s business services practice group where he concentrates his practice in commercial and business litigation. The opinions expressed are those of the author.