A gubernatorial debate without mention of social issues


“Don’t worry, they’ll just build a new building,” my friend assured me.  I was entering a much-vaunted auditorium at the University of St. Thomas with a cup of contraband coffee in my hand, timidly murmuring that they would have to re-carpet if I were to spill a drop.

The old anecdote crossed my mind recently as I entered an even newer auditorium, this time to hear a “debate” among gubernatorial candidates sponsored. As I tried to listen to the spins and dodges, I kept reminding myself to think no small thoughts. If anyone spilled the beans on the candidates’ avoidance tactics, the powers would indeed build a new building. The reminder was pricey, painful and a prod to rethink the ways in which those who care about social issues respond to – better yet, get in front of – the issues.

Needless to say, the folks at this debate heard nary a word about social issues. The prevailing mantra was predictable: “the economy, stupid” – writ large and arguably a little late. Attendees could blithely stride past peaceful protesters who were not allowed to walk, talk or carry their message to the veranda of the Opus College of Business building.

The candidates are justifiably terrified that any sidelong glance at social issues will raise the hackles and open the checkbooks of those who prefer to ponder the “E” topic – taxes, job creation, the rights of the have’s, fiscal policy. Candidates and their supporters alike have a preconceived notion of social activists. For those who struggle for peace and justice, that’s a painful but necessary admission. I’m reminded of Robert Burns who nailed it: “O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”

This painful – not to mention expensive –  experience of the debate, now tempered by time, sharpened my focus on the absence of social issues from the candidate debates in particular, from media coverage of the campaigns, and from public discourse in general.  Those who care about pay inequity, the rights of immigrants, domestic abuse, trafficking, the homeless, learning opportunities of poor kids, and other real life issues need to internalize the world view of the candidates. Electoral politics, statistics, and language both shape and reflect a world view that is as real as it is unlike our own way of looking at things. Some possible concrete steps to getting on the agenda:

  • Change the questions (priority #1) –  If the candidate is bombarded with the same question in various venues, the issue makes its way to the candidate’s and the media’s agenda.

  • Change the tone – Position yourself or your organization as a co-conspirator against some common foe. Invent one if necessary.

  • Load them with the numbers – This I learned from the indomitable Nina Rothchild. Statistics talk. Sometimes they speak the truth; in the hands of liars, they lie or obfuscate. Consider the source and the presentation. Apply the KISS principle and be able to back it up with hard data.

  • Fact check – In the digital age it’s easy enough to track the facts. Don’t swallow but follow the information track.

  • Craft and communicate a vision – Everybody wants to look ahead to a better world. Create a vision that embraces positive change broadly defined to include crazy ideas such as justice.

  • Listen, painful as that may be – Filter the rhetoric and get into the minds of those who echo, rather than initiate, strategies for addressing the issues.

  • Invoke the founding fathers – Everybody else does. It was Jefferson himself who wrote that:  “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.”

  • Remember that it’s not about laying new carpet, it’s about building a new building with a new foundation of social, as well economic, building blocks.

  • Speak up – you’ve got the facts, the stories, and  TJ’s confidence in the people to back you up.

A passion for info access is the dominant thread in my DNA. Though the sources, format, techniques and skills change with the times, information is a powerful and relentless tool which, if used with skill and a little panache, will bring about change, starting with a revised agenda. Posts re. the power and sources of information are about to boil over in my head.  Watch for future posts here and elsewhere.