against cynicism

August 1, 2014

As you probably remember, in June I took part in the Morris Area Climate Dialogue. This was a fascinating experience in which I and 14 other Morris-area residents sat down and discussed the challenges and opportunities facing west-central Minnesota with regard to changing climates. We did not attempt to rehash the debate over whether it was happening; rather, we tried to address how to handle what is happening. We came from widely divergent backgrounds, statuses, and viewpoints, but in the end we produced what I think is a solid document and starting point. (That document can be viewed here.) You get to see a couple of pictures of me as well, including one right on the front, and there’s a quote from me in there. See if you can find it!)

Earlier this week, I got the chance to spend a few minutes talking with Kyle Bozentko, the executive director of the Jefferson Center, an organization out of St. Paul which seeks to expand citizen involvement. The Jefferson Center sponsored the Morris Area Climate Dialogue, in conjunction with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. We had a nice conversation, and it got me to thinking about what I can do, what you can do, what we all can do to fix our broken system.

Then I started wondering just why the system is broken. The simplest explanation is the presence of nearly-unlimited cash in the electoral process. While the phrase “you cannot solve a problem throwing more money at it” is often used to excuse not only inaction but also harmful cuts, in this case it is absolutely applicable. But that’s not all. Money has to be used toward a purpose, and I think I’ve discovered the purpose for all this campaign cash.

We assume that the tons of cash thrown into the electoral process is designed to get you to vote for someone or something. I believe that to be a false assumption. However, I also believe it is wrong to assume that the cash is there to get you to vote against someone or something. Rather, I believe the current political system is designed to get you to stop caring. The media, which is mostly corporate-owned, helps perpetuate this cynicism with the nonstop search for “balance,” which is narrowly interpreted to mean “we must find something bad for Team Red if we show something bad for Team Blue and vice versa.” The recent decisions increasing the rights of corporations over actual human persons as well as declaring money to be equal to speech tie into this as well. From all sides, the message is clear: You don’t matter. So have a Coke and a smile, and don’t try to change anything.

My experience taking part in the MACD with the Jefferson Center showed me that, even if you have differences that appear to be unbridgeable, you can still work together to change things – but only if everyone is acting in good faith and admits that things need to be changed. This is clearly not the case right now in Washington, and that attitude is affecting our state capitals, county courthouses, and city halls as well. These attitudes are hardened by gerrymandering and by the promise of easy campaign cash (or a post-election or post-term sinecure on K Street) for any candidate willing to, say, parrot the Koch Brothers. You have a group of people who are so cynical, they don’t believe government can work at all, and then they get elected and try to prove it. They dress this up with lines like “we believe in Constitutional government.” They then ride roughshod over the needs, desires, and hopes of actual human persons in their slavish devotion to corporate cash. Seems I Timothy 6:10 is still relevant here.

So what can we do?

Three words: Stop being cynical. The process will be frustrating. Take part anyway. On many issues there may not be that much difference between candidates. Vote anyway.

You will lose more often than you win. Get involved anyway. Our Constitution was written for idealists with a realistic streak (or possibly realists with an idealistic streak). It was not written for the cynical, and we should not let it be hijacked by the cynical.

It won’t be easy. It wasn’t meant to be easy. I’m not going to lie – it is hard to be an informed, engaged citizen in a time when so many people are doing so many things precisely to keep you from being that. But our Founders knew that the only way this works is if we believe in it. I’ve joked about modern finance being the scene in Peter Pan when Tinkerbell tells the audience to clap harder, but – and this is a little scary when you think about it – clapping harder is exactly what we need to do to keep our representative democracy alive. We must invest ourselves fully and without question or pause in the belief that this thing called America is worth supporting and fighting for. You will lose more than you win. Get involved anyway. And always follow the advice of Molly Ivins:

“So keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.”

If you want to learn more about the Jefferson Center, please visit their website at