The practice of democracy is not easy. Nor is it always — or even often — an attractive sight. It can feel like a long, hard slog walking uphill in a driving rain, at night.
For many Americans, the 2012 presidential election looks like a slog.
In a Gallup poll conducted just over a month ago, randomly sampled U.S. adults were asked this question: “Thinking about the 2012 presidential campaign, starting with the Iowa caucuses in January through Election Day in November, which better describes you — you can’t wait for the campaign to begin or you can’t wait for the campaign to be over?”
Fully 70% said they can’t wait for the campaign to be over.
These numbers were similar across political party identification and gender. Among respondents, the only meaningful distinction was that people 65 and over really want the campaign to be done: 80% of them want it over, compared to roughly two-thirds of other age groups.
I suggest three reasons for why Americans dread the presidential campaign.
First, citizenry confidence and trust in political leadership has fallen off a cliff. Other Gallup data from September 2011, shown in the accompanying graph, indicates that in the past few years the percent of U.S. adults expressing “a great deal” or “fair amount” of trust and confidence in political leaders has declined dramatically. Indeed, for the first time more people say they have “not very much” trust and confidence or “none at all.” It is tough to be upbeat about electing a president when half of Americans see political leaders so negatively.
Second, elections are moments of choice and, as a result, can be more divisive than unifying. The United States already seems to be riven by cultural divides: red vs. blue states, the 99% vs. the 1%, religious and secular, gay and straight, urban vs. suburban vs. rural, and on it goes. Who in their right minds wants us as a nation to be more divided? I certainly don’t.
Third, this isn’t our first rodeo on the key issues at stake. The economic matters being debated have been around since, oh, the Industrial Revolution in the mid 1800s. How to handle immigration can be traced to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Health care has been hotly contested since at least the New Deal in the 1930s. Who should get to marry goes back a millenium or two or three. For many Americans, this election offers nothing new under the sun.
OK, fair enough: Dread it is. But we cannot allow this sentiment to carry the day.
Rather than duck and cover in our respective cultural comfort zones, we need to adopt a new commitment to look and listen to others, with a genuine goal of seeking to understand. We need to ask about people’s motives rather than unilaterally ascribe them. We need to be curious more than critical. To use a metaphor, we need to start walking a mile in the shoes of others. That is the goal of this blog.
UW Election Eye 2012 is a partnership of The Seattle Times and the University of Washington’s Department of Communication. This blog will be hosted and edited by the Times, and its content will be generated by UW Communication faculty and students. We will focus initially on the presidential campaign, and then we will broaden to include the campaigns in Washington state for Governor, Senator, and the House of Representatives.
We will not be covering breaking news; that can be found in a million places these days. Instead, we will produce on-the-ground content in which we extract slices of the campaigns, vignettes and moments and windows into political souls. At the end of the day, we hope to inflect upward the public dialogue, to build rather than break connections.
The road of democracy in 2012 might be long, uphill, in the rain and dark. Fine. We invite you to walk with us, and if you’re willing we’d like to swap shoes with you.