What if you gave a party and nobody showed up? Chicago had a mayoral election pretty much like that a couple of weeks back. People still can't get over how disappointingly low the voter turnout was across the entire city.
They really shouldn't be that surprised - it's happening more and more as vast numbers of voters become increasingly disaffected and disconnected from the political system. Chicago's latest is just another symptom of the "whatever" rot that's creeping steadily into so many parts of our lives. And, in many cases, the crooked pols have only themselves to blame for the lack of interest.
Chicago's recent runoff was officially declared momentous in advance, mainly because whichever one of the two final candidates who was elected would be the first female African-American mayor. The media tried its mightiest to build some continuing interest in the goings-on. But that's very hard to do after a lengthy initial campaign waged by an army of novice and negative candidates engaged in an unending nightly sludge fest of disgusting attack ads. Even if you tried to pay attention to the issues and concerns being raised, it was difficult to tell some of the players' positions apart. Talk about voter fatigue, and spreading the peanut butter so thin that you basically couldn't tell one candidate's stand on anything that mattered from the claims of half a dozen others. And, not surprisingly, the first voting go-round turned out to have the votes split so many different ways that there weren't so much winners as there were the two least losers.
As you might imagine, when the electorate (such as it was) was asked to get back on the horse for another painful month of noise and name-calling, they basically tuned out. That's how you come to have a run-off that was ignored by almost two thirds of the eligible voters. Numerically, it was a clean sweep for Lori Lightfoot who - it was incessantly reported - "convincingly" won every single ward in the city and who promptly and personally claimed the results evidenced an overwhelming "mandate" for change. But was it really a mandate or just a "meh"?
It feels to me that what we witnessed-- as the dust starts to settle and some of the grim realities and signs of early pragmatism and compromise start to appear - is numerically a little bit like Yogi Berra's old restaurant observation: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." If people really cared about the outcome and were honestly passionate about changing things, wouldn't you think they'd take the tiny amount of time required to show up and vote? As election evening wore on and the frightfully low poll numbers continued to roll in, it seemed like a Homecoming dance where almost everyone stayed home.
And, apart from the mayoral contest, the few voters who did show up at the polls also showed the door to half a dozen or more of the most solid and experienced alderpersons in the city. Lots of change for change's sake and the kind of thing the hopped-up, short-term city residents will soon look back on and admit (as they head to the suburbs or leave town) seemed like a good idea in the heat of the moment. But it sucks when you have to struggle to make things actually work in the aftermath.
Nothing prepares you for the first time and none of these political jobs are entry-level positions. But, in the new world, apparently anything from pouring drinks to dropping out and doing a walk-about qualifies you for higher office. There's no such thing as paying your dues and learning a little bit about what you're doing before you jump right into the pool.
So, what's a fair message to draw from this most recent small D democratic debacle. And how will the sad, but spreading trend of massive voter apathy and indifference that makes for these "mini-wins" impact the elections in 2020? I'd say that we need to watch and try to interrupt three trends that really threaten our society and our democracy going forward.
1. We can't let the biggest blowhards blow everyone else away.
The media circus today is a frantic grab for our attention at any cost and puts a premium on everything but substance. Snappy sound bits. Snazzy outfits. Nasty nicknames. Extreme examples and gestures. Whatever sucker bait it takes to grab the latest news cycle and the spotlight. Notoriety trumps knowledge. The "reporters" can't help themselves and their news directors are even more pathetic panderers to everyone's worst instincts. We can't stop it, but we can try to turn it off and ignore it.
2. We have to insist on some minimum qualifications for these positions even when the bar at the moment has never been lower.
Yes, Dorothy, anyone in the U.S. can grow up to be President, but how about if we (the voters and the "represented") insist that the candidates at least grow up a little before, in their ignorance and arrogance, they decide to run for office. I'm not talking about legislation; I'm talking about voter education and reasonable expectations. Bartenders, baseball players, newscasters, and your next-door neighbor could make the cut, but that's a pretty low bar. Not qualified in any practical sense, but equally not shy, isn't a great gating standard. It's not so much their ignorance that's offensive as their self-deluded and self-assured illusion of knowledge. They know what's best for us, even if they can't coherently express or articulate it, and their small, but rabid bands of supporters make a complete hash of our primary system because we basically let anyone into the contest who wants to play. We'll have 15 or 20 Democratic candidates for President in 2020 any day now. More morons, more media, more bread and circuses.
3. We can't let social media continue to lower the bars of decency and decorum and simultaneously increase the levels of ignorance and anger.
Rarely has Lady Gaga said anything as prescient and pithy as her observation that "social media is the toilet of the Internet" and she couldn't be more on target. Our democratic systems ultimately depend on communication, conversation and some common ground where at least we do others the courtesy of listening before we respond, challenge and/or ignore them. But today, no one listens to anything other than what they want to hear and what's being directed and filtered to them. In times past, there was a practical floor and some limits on the slime and slanders that could be spewed by trolls (and other manipulators) in part because they were known and sometimes held accountable instead of being able to hide behind the anonymity of their keyboards and screens and say whatever filth and falsehoods come to mind.
Thomas Jefferson said it best: "A continual circulation of lies among those who are not much in the way of hearing them contradicted will in time pass for the truth."
If the greedy, indifferent and willfully oblivious pigs who are running these social media platforms won't police them, and if they continue to pretend that they're merely pipelines and conduits instead of publishers, pawns and political pornographers, then we need our do-nothing politicians and toothless regulatory agencies to step in and financially punish them. That's exactly what the Europeans are doing. Because it's increasingly clear that we can't and won't help ourselves and that nothing but money matters to these dirtbags. Left to themselves, the only direction that bad people and bad businesses go is downhill.
It's simply no longer good enough to say that the voters (and non-voters) get the politicians and leaders that they deserve. We need and deserve better, for ourselves and even more for the next several generations, but the necessary changes won't happen by themselves.