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PENNING: Elections can only be improved by voters

• Nov 9, 2018 at 3:00 PM

As I am writing this, it is election night. I don’t know the outcome of the election yet. As you are reading this, you do. And then again, you don’t.

Today, two days after the election, we know which candidates and proposals received the most votes. We have from that an indication of how government will change.

But will our politics change? I believe they need to. Here are some reasons why:

One problem is the overall attitudes about elections. Voting should be seen as a civic responsibility as well as a privilege that is rare in global governance. But many people see elections the wrong way.

On the one hand, I had an unusual number of students asking me to cancel class so they could vote. I gave excused absences for those who lived out of state and needed to travel home to vote with my encouragement. However, most who asked could clearly have made it to the polls in the morning and to my late afternoon class with time to spare.

An election should not be seen as an excuse for a holiday. Maybe some day we’ll have Election Day on a Saturday or declare it a Monday holiday like some nations do.

At the other extreme are those who view elections as sport. They love to see people take a hit, or score big rhetorical points. It’s as if the policies, proposals, principles and ensuing laws don’t matter. This is our government — not an episode of “Scandal” or “House of Cards.”

When “we the people” act this way about elections, we only fuel another problem associated with voting day — media coverage. I have a degree in and practiced journalism, so I have a healthy respect for the profession. But I also have an educated criticism of how they cover elections. As mentioned above, they treat elections as sport.

A typical TV treatment is to have opposing views represented by smiling yet snarky partisans who scream over each other. Many newspapers cover elections and the associated issues by doing “process” stories, or a total focus on each party’s strategies to win, as opposed to spelling out what a platform or policy proposal would mean for citizens, why they are proposing it, and the alternate view of an opponent.

They say “we report you decide,” but instead it’s one retorts and the other derides. And the voters learn very little, if anything, to enable an informed decision.

It is important to remember here something about journalism. It is often called an institution of democracy, a watchdog of government, a priesthood of culture and politics. But “journalism” is a business. Television stations and newspapers and radio stations and online platforms exist to make money. News is merely the product they use to do so.

The First Amendment freedom of the “press” is not for journalists — there was no such thing as “journalism” at the time. There were citizens who happened to own a literal press. Our new nation wanted freedom from government interference in printing pamphlets and other materials. Printers soon developed newspapers, often for the express purpose of supporting a candidate or party. And to make money.

Periodically, if journalists have hewed to a more objective format, it was never a return to their moral philosophy — it was because of economic incentive. People were weary of the propaganda from the owners of media, so in order to “sell” news they needed to offer a product that was less biased.

For this reason, some of the best journalism today is from small, local outlets, because the producers of news are closer to their consumers. At the national level, the broadcast, print and online outlets have not departed from some journalistic glory days — they are consistent with a time when the whole point of a newspaper was to present a partisan view to the masses.

I actually study the public relations of American presidents, and have been dwelling between Washington and Polk lately. If you feel your blood boil at the mention of Trump, Pelosi or any modern politician, you would be interested to know that the conniving and incivility of the 1700s and 1800s was often the same or worse as it is today. The only real differences are the technology and speed of communication today. The vitriol and invective are traditional.

So, two days after a midterm election, are you disappointed or elated? I would suggest to you that the role of a voter is not a one-day commitment. It is ongoing.

So I plead with you, whatever your party or positions, to take that role seriously. I appeal to, in the words of Lincoln, your “better angels.” Our politicians, our media and our elections will not change by themselves — only we the people can do that.

So I ask you, after this election and already on the way to 2020, mark yourself in favor a better electoral attitude and process. Let us not reward politicians or the media by salivating at the extreme divisions. Instead, as a people with a common love of country, let us be willing to listen to the other side and demand that politicians make their case instead of another attack. Let us pay attention to sharp minds, not sharp rhetoric. We should delight not in the volume of someone’s voice but in the calm and honest reason of authentic explanation.

Meanwhile, we all need to reward journalism that seeks to inform us instead of entertain us. View, subscribe to and share journalism that broadens perspective and not that which confirms pre-existing ideas.

Finally, let’s talk to each other with the goal of common understanding instead of winning arguments. Let’s be OK with not agreeing, and work to understanding the difference as opposed to labeling different views evil or stupid. Let’s examine our hearts, values and principles and vote consistently on those instead of party loyalty or defense of traditional alliances. Let’s rise to be “the people” that our government is supposed to be of, by and for.

— Tim Penning, Ph.D., is a professor of public relations and a writer.

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