Bill Knight | Ugliness in April elections



Dirty politics, surly opposition and ugly social media all surfaced around April’s election. Some races had no challengers; some couldn’t fill vacancies; some unqualified candidates resorted to name-calling or paying others for negative appeals.

Willingness to serve takes time, money and, increasingly, thick skin, so who’d blame people’s reluctance? It’s no wonder there aren’t more or better candidates.

Area turnout was lousy: 12.5 percent in Fulton County, 11.5 percent in Knox, 15 percent in Peoria, 21.6 percent in Tazewell and 9.5 percent in Woodford. Results were also disappointing: A few good candidates got out-spent and out-maneuvered by unethical attacks; referenda failed in Fulton and Tazewell counties, where public facilities and schools need help. But anti-all-tax types will still gripe about falling student assessments and lawsuits if cell doors can’t be unlocked in emergencies, and cry “cut spending” (unless that includes programs that help them).

Nevertheless, service is needed and makes a difference. Unfortunately, in a polarized climate made worse by social media, the few willing to step up are folks giving back, or getting even.

“Politics makes strange bedfellows,” it’s said. But people are known by their associates.

Those who use misrepresentation or lies, in mailers or online, aren’t victors but varmints.

Scurrilous attacks on Peoria City Council candidates Rita Ali, Beth Jensen and Peter Kobak were mailed to hundreds. Credited to a Political Action Committee that isn’t listed by the Illinois State Board of Elections, they’re tied to a GOP activist financially linked to prominent area Republicans, including Aaron Schock. Such tactics insult voters (and aren’t that valuable; Kobak was criticized for his stands on marijuana, immigration and increasing the minimum wage, but his positions are mainstream, polls show).

Every municipality, school, library and park can improve; reforms are needed. People should object to inequality and injustice. But letting demagogues gain power by directing legitimate anger about government or corporations to scapegoats won’t help. And exclusively second-guessing elected representatives won’t either. That and social media are less about democracy than ill-informed, ill-tempered time sinks. Axes to grind and other gripes range from taxes and potholes to accusations of malfeasance.

So, good people bow out and some challengers become the exception that proves the rule.

“Outrage is always at hand,” Holly Spangler writes in Prairie Farmer.

“Never mind the facts,” she continues. “When we can’t gather basic facts of a situation or when we can’t consider all the facts, we can’t make informed decisions. We can’t have an intelligent conversation with officials when we don’t take time to understand policy. Sometimes, people don’t understand how it works.”

For example, the Illinois Association of School Boards says that the state tasks local boards with hiring superintendents and administrators, establishing budgets and taxes and paying bills, and setting policies – not micromanaging classrooms. Similar powers (or lack of them) apply in most public bodies.

Officials and candidates are accountable – and so are citizens.

Aggressively confronting small-town boards of volunteers isn’t the same as challenging Capitol Hill lobbyists, who are paid well to endure disagreements or abuse. Regular people trying to serve their neighbors are different.

Citizens need not be silent or content, but advocate more than attack.

“Speaking truth to power” doesn’t mean online bellyaching (and many “trolls” are disturbed, according to Unversity of Manitoba scholar Erin Buckels, whose research says that Internet anonymity frees pathological people to be disruptive: “The allure of trolling may be too strong for sadists, as they presumably have limited opportunities to express their sadistic interests in a socially desirable manner.”)

Plus, using social-media “botnets” and “sockpuppets” are malicious actors who make political consultants look like snake-oil salesmen on wagons.

Rage can make people susceptible to hogwash, especially through social media.

Thirty years ago, the Internet was “CB radio with typing,” as Tom Wolfe said. Then Timothy Berners-Lee created standards that made the World Wide Web possible, and it got amazing. And corrupt. Now a few giant corporations control it, and it’s infected with Dark Web evil, cyber crime and electoral mischief.

Facebook is often gossip colorfully displayed with the value of café hearsay or backyard rumors, creating controversies. Facebook contributes to incivilities, not civic attitudes. (See Harper’s magazine cover story in January: “The Dark Hole of Social Media: How the Internet Subverts Democracy.”)

“It’s a false reality fueled by Facebook, fascism and fraud,” writes Buffalo State College scholar Michael Niman. “If it conquers reality, we have nowhere left to fight.”

Post-elections, taking office means taking time and training to acclimate to what’s needed, like other new jobs or relationships. One wonders how some candidates expect to collaborate after comments that stir fury to gain support.

“The very real outcome of all this is people will quit volunteering,” Spangler says. “We need to respect authority, leadership and experience – and volunteers who take time away from their families to serve the community, I wonder how it feels to them, to have a loud, belligerent, uninformed yet opinionated community member confronting them about the latest outrage.”

Indeed, whether attacks come from printed hit pieces, inflammatory emails or Facebook, do they help or hurt?

Winning isn’t everything; the ends don’t always justify the means.

People who lie with pigs will stink.

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