Democracy, unlike this campaign season, has to be issues-driven

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—The campaign season is catapulting issues, facts, and insults to front pages and back rooms. these days, it’s tough not to think or be talking about some of them.

Only days remain until voters will make their choices in the primary election, and with campaigns operating at full tilt to capture attention and undecided voters, the intensity of the most contentious races will continue to accelerate to the last minutes of the general election. But in this furious final push, or any other time prior, what assurance do voters have that candidate claims are correct? None, really. Making informed choices means being informed citizens and that doesn’t happen over just the span of a political season. A key question for political analyst and University of Hawaii professor Neal Milner is why we can’t seem to get people who are less educated interested in politics.

“That’s a question that has profound effects on the democratic process,” Milner says. “We have three tiers of people: people who are knowledgeable about politics, people who know a little, and people who don’t know anything and they seem to break down according to socio-economic class.”

Kanu Hawaii Board member Alani Apio believes “there’s a deeper issue in our society and how seriously we take running it.” Kanu Hawaii focuses on energy and food production issues and resource husbandry in part by encouraging personal commitments made public on the Kanu website. It actively courts younger members through strategic social marketing.

Apio insists that although he attended Hawaii public schools, then Kamehameha Schools, and later the University of Hawaii, “it never got instilled in me deeply in any of those situations how important it was for me to understand the value of the society I live in or my own obligation to making it run appropriately.”

What was missing for him and for most of us is a core passion for democracy. Milner agrees that doesn’t come from an attempt by one generation to goad another into political action. According to Milner’s students, it doesn’t flow from the obligatory democracy participation classes, either. What makes the difference is a personal connection to something or someone who matters. For Apio, it arrived through finding likeminded, roughly same-aged people who wanted to actively bring about change—and who were willing to put in the time to connect with the political process and educate others to do likewise.

That human factor is critical to success, Milner says, and although tech tools are now just part of our daily communication conduits, political spam gets no result—especially with younger generations. Junk mail is junk mail whether in an email or conventional mailbox; unless you happen to like the candidate who is sending it.

For an undecided voter, Milner also says studies show endorsements don’t work. They reinforce the correctness of a voter’s choice if she likes the candidate or disassociates the voter who prefers another candidate. It’s the time consuming fingers and feet campaign that works, especially when paired with a captivating candidate. Just look back two years—or 50.

“I first got involved with politics because I was very much drawn to a particular presidential candidate,” says Common Cause Hawaii Executive Director Nikki Love. “I think my dad said it was all about Kennedy for him.”

Love has been rebuilding her organization’s Hawaii chapter since its return in late 2007. Its largely older member base continues to slowly grow and bond over issues. She credits an active and somewhat high-touch response to keep members engaged regardless of the political season.

While it’s her job to create political activism by tracking and communicating the organization’s stance on state and sometimes national issues (for example the Citizens United SCOTUS decision and its implication for Hawaii), it’s the ongoing communication—especially informational evenings and partnerships with other organizations—that still work best, Love says. It’s that people-to-people thing, and maybe we’re all getting a lesson that despite our reliance on tech, we all really do crave interpersonal contact and all business (political or otherwise) really is relationship-based after all. Of course, we knew that long before the shiny things with electronic immediacy bedazzled us.

An issue that Love says will need a shared sense of outrage to make any change between elections is the election process itself. And it’s one example of how technology could and should be better used. The biggest barrier for anyone who gets the urge to vote late in the game is the registration deadline.

“I can’t think of many other things that require registration thirty days in advance,” Love says. Given the particular urgency of younger generations trained to expect instant fulfillment, Love believes same day registration is an issue her members will get behind—likely in partnership with other organizations.

Every two years, the rise and pitch of campaigns put everyone in the same boat: We all get to be recipients of seemingly endless ads, signs, flyers, surveys, and invitations to candidates evenings plus all the media polls and stories. Oh yes, and the stream of sign-wavers. But it’s the issues that transcend all of that, even though they often get lost in the rhetoric of candidate character and experience profiles, and this time around, overshadowed by far too much mean-spiritedness.

Life, politics and public policy issues continue long after an election is over. Milner says if we have a hope of creating an informed citizenry with a real passion for democracy, it will have to come from the family, not campaigns, media, or even school. It will have to be actively shown by example of parent to child much like reading, volunteering, or philanthropy. And, he says, unlike this campaign, it has to be issues-driven.

The full interview with Neal Milner, Nikki Love, and Alani Apio is on the Town Square archive at  Reach Beth-Ann Kozlovich at [email protected]