Democracy needs Leadership

Polling is not Leadership

On January 14 I attended an Indivisible event in Durham NC, where several speakers representing the FlipNC coalition presented strategies for breaking the supermajority in North Carolina. Their primary goal is to reduce the number of Republican seats below 60%, which would enable the Governor’s veto power and restore checks and balances. (My experience at this event ultimately sparked my decision to start blogging.)

During a Q&A session, one member of the audience asked about the messaging to use during canvassing: “What is the message we can take to North Carolina voters? What is our platform? What are our speaking points?” The answer, which came from one of the leaders of the North Carolina Democratic Party, was this:

We want North Carolina to be safer, healthier, prosperous, and fair. We believe in the value of people’s work, decent wages. We value family, and that includes clean air and water and housing. We believe in community, investing in public schools and bringing people together.

Sounds ok, but not exactly inspiring. Any politician, of any party, could say something this vague. Even Donald Trump could claim these to be his core values. I was unimpressed, so at the end of the event I went up and spoke to some of the party leaders about the message.

I said that just off the top of my head I could think of over a dozen things that I care about, and I reeled them off (in no particular order):

  1. Climate change
  2. Support for the EPA and our environment
  3. Investments in clean energy
  4. Protecting entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act
  5. Expansion of Medicaid in North Carolina, especially because those who suffer mental health issues often end up on the streets or in jail
  6. Cyber-security (including preventing foreign meddling in our elections)
  7. Campaign finance reform
  8. Decriminalizing (or even legalizing and taxing) marijuana, not because I’m some kind of stoner but because we shouldn’t fill our jails with poor people who smoke cannabis, a substance which is now decriminalized in half of America
  9. Decriminalization of poverty. (Read more about this.)
  10. Black Lives Matter
  11. Community College for everyone
  12. LGBT rights
  13. Separation of church and state
  14. Protection of a Free Press and our First Amendment rights
  15. Stability in foreign policy because the world doesn’t trust us when we flip policy every 4-8 years

Once I rattled off my list, a local candidate for North Carolina legislature nodded and said:

We tested a fair number of these, and many are important to me as well. But we have a wide variety of opinions within the party. Some of these don’t poll well, and several aren’t understood well. We tested many messages, and the ones of family values, fair wages, schools, and community resonated best with the widest voter demographic.

Seriously? The Democratic Party is testing its messaging using least-common-denominator marketing principles? What’s next, do we endorse only those principles that get the most Facebook likes? What are we promoting, democratic values or breakfast cereal?

Did our Founding Fathers first conduct a survey to determine whether they should throw off British rule? No, statesmen made inspiring speeches, backed by fearless determination and the power of their muskets, and with rallying cries like Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty, or give me death!

Statesmanship means leadership. When did we forego statesmen (gender-neutral, I checked) in favor of politicians? And what, you may ask, is the difference? I found this definition courtesy of Johnny Kilhefner, writing in the Houston Chronicle:

“An example of a politician is a person running for office who flip-flops on issues as the polls change. The politician makes promises but may not deliver on them once elected. A statesman is a person who stands by his ideals and does everything in his power to do what he believes is right for the people of his country.”

Leaders are those who stand by their principles, with strong words and actions. Patrick Henry was a statesman, as well as an orator. Look at the effect of his speech to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775:

According to Edmund Randolph, the convention sat in silence for several minutes afterwards. Thomas Marshall told his son John Marshall, who later became Chief Justice of the United States, that the speech was “one of the most bold, vehement, and animated pieces of eloquence that had ever been delivered.”….. And the drafter of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, George Mason, said, “Every word he says not only engages but commands the attention, and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them.” More immediately, the resolution, declaring the United Colonies to be independent of the Kingdom of Great Britain, passed, and Henry was named chairman of the committee assigned to build a militia. (courtesy of Wikipedia)

(If only my words could have so much power.)

Did Roosevelt and Congress consult Gallup polls to decide whether to enter WWII? No, because American sentiment was, in the majority, isolationist. But in those days we had leaders, not followers. Popular figures like the aviator Charles Lindbergh rallied the America First movement against the war, and against this movement, FDR was preparing America for war long before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

While you may argue whether it was the Japanese or FDR who caused US involvement in WWII, it was certainly leadership and statesmanship that prepared us.

There were many great men on both sides of that America First divide, and I admire them for the strength of their convictions and the power of their words. Democrats need to show leadership and realize that polls are valuable in telling you the temperature of the water, but not the direction in which to swim. Perhaps that’s why polls aren’t always right; because politicians have it backwards: people follow leaders, not the other way around.

[Democratic image courtesy Alpha Stock Images, original author: Nick Youngson]


One thought on “Polling is not Leadership”

  1. One of my concerns as a registered D is that the party has drifted into identity politics to the detriment of some of the critical issues that would solve problems across the ideological spectrum, such as economic revitalization for working people and climate change issues.

    Indeed, the party leader’s talking points were pablum.

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