Today, incumbents and candidates live with the fear of any misspoken word or slip of the tongue becoming the immediate attack ad by an aggressive opponent. It makes creative thinking, risk taking, and aggressively searching for answers to be--in political survival terms--highly risky, even suicidal. I remember being on a lecture circuit for a short time after leaving office and hearing one of my colleagues share the story comparing a new baby with a new idea. As I’m sure we will all agree, we give babies initially a pretty low bar to reach to satisfy our standards. Then, gradually, we raise the bar as the child grows and matures. But with new ideas, too often we immediately apply mature standards, giving no opportunity for reflection, questions, ideas for adjustments, and much, if any, hope of acceptability. History will show us that almost all ideas start with some rough edges--some more than others--but if given a chance and some productive dialogue, they just might be of value. This is rarely the case today, particularly if it gives the opportunity to embarrass, bury or outright destroy a political opponent. This is where citizens can play such a significant role: by taking the lead on an idea, working out the rough edges, and building public support, making it easier for the elected official to be supportive. As I mentioned in my previous post, if the public support is there, the support of elected officials will follow.
Now to be perfectly fair, one can go back in history and find some not so attractive aspects of political life in our earlier history. As I have told my classes, politics has never been a Sunday School slow pitch softball game. What makes it different today though, is the speed with which things take place given the advancement of technology and the massive influx of money that puts it all in a totally different league. That innocent slip of the tongue that in yesteryear might likely be forgotten, could today be up in the world of the internet, never to be pulled back, reaching thousands, millions, almost instantly. Fortunately, there are also ways this technology can be leveraged to increase the voice of the citizen. To finish up this series on civic engagement, my next post will focus on what can be done to respond to this new environment.