Sunday, May 06, 2012

THE ART AND ACCEPTABILITY OF POLITICAL PANDERING

Fact 1: politicians pander. Fact 2: we accept it.

I think that "panderer" has become an accepted part of a politicians job description. Pandering is most visible during election season, and it is in full bloom right now. Mitt "Etch-a-Sketch" Romney is a weather vane twirling in the winds of interest groups. Nicolas Sarkozy has taken a sharp right turn to the on-ramp to anti-immigrant and anti-Islam land in an effort to save his bid for a second term. Barak Obama, Bill Clinton, Dubya - they all pandered to their base and any other group with electoral muscle. Many of us voters recognize this, but we shrug it of as part of the game.

The column by Frank Bruni in the Sunday NY Times made me stop and think about my acceptance of political pandering. Bruni writes about Marsha Ternus, a former Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court. "Former" because she was unelected three years ago, along with two other justices, because the Iowa Supreme Court they were part of ruled unanimously that an Iowa statute banning same-sex marriage violated the equal protection language of the Iowa Constitution. This ruling resulted in a firestorm fanned by out-of-state anti gay organizations that funded the campaign to toss these judges at the election box. Ms. Ternus was not a crusader for gay rights; she simply looked at the facts and made a logical decision based on a very strong legal foundation.

I understand that judges and politicians are different species, but the story of Justice Ternus made me realize that I long for political leadership that is based on logic and truth, not on the number of votes. I've seen the movie in which the political candidate or the elected official finally reaches the limit of tolerance and stands up for the truth, thereby dooming her/his chances. Reality is different, we say, because in order for "good" people to get or stay in office, they need to get the most votes. And part of  playing the Get the Most Votes game is pandering to as many voters as possible without doing an unacceptable amount of damage to one's principles. After being elected, a politician can do the etch-a-sketch shake and put the election persona back in the box until the next election.

There are politicians who don't play the pandering game; I personally know some. But perhaps this is only possible because they have a clear majority of voters in their districts who clearly support them. In presidential politics, the voters are all over the map (literally and figuratively), and the game is won by those who pander best (and raise more money, of course - but this is also largely a result of pandering to the big money interests).

Is there a different and better way?

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