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Matthew Stokes: Ideas, not symbols, solve problems

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Contributor

The most frustrating thing about this primary season is that it reinforced the fact that most of our politicians may have good intentions, but they’re out of good ideas.  

As a conservative, I found it particularly depressing. Conservatives love to fall back on our admiration for Ronald Reagan but behind the folksy demeanor (which was real, and not an affectation) was a political leader who had spent decades digesting economics and political philosophy and was well-versed on practically every issue facing the nation during his three decades of active political life.

 Among his close friends were professors, pundits, and policy experts. While Reagan had a gift for connecting with everyday Americans, he was able to effectively lead because he cultivated a vast array of knowledge over a long period of time. I worry that this mostly missing at the state level, among both Republicans and Democrats.

If you’re mad at yourself, you could spend an hour or so on YouTube watching campaign ads.  You’ll see a lot of clean cut candidates, with smiling spouses and well-groomed children. The candidates attend church or hunt or toss a football in the yard.  They probably eat something fried.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong here. I like all of these things, and I’m glad my politicians do, too. The problem is that too often this is all a candidate has to give the voters.  Symbolism has its place in politics, but it is no substitute for principles and ideas about how to govern. Instead of ideas, our candidates are content to spend their time promoting buzzwords and loyalty to Donald Trump instead of setting agendas.

Candidates love to tout their conservatism as a selling point, but I have serious doubts that these folks know what conservatism means as an idea.  One of the key ideas behind conservatism is that there is a lot of space between individuals and the government.  In that space lies civil society; families, communities, churches and other religious institutions, volunteer organizations, community sports, and countless other organizations and institutions where a person can grow and find meaning and belonging.  

Implicit in this idea is that you do not need the government to validate you. While we might like our leaders to make us comfortable and to relate with us on a personal level and share our common values and interests, it isn’t necessary. You may be a hunter, but your governor doesn’t have to be one.  You may like organic kale and fair trade coffee, but your attorney general doesn’t have to, as well.

When these things become priorities, our politicians don’t just spend their campaigns running on cultural symbolism. They spend their time in office doing it, too.

Some folks would argue that voters don’t really care about ideas, and that’s true to an extent.  Citizens have lives to live, and they shouldn’t be expected to rehash all the fine points of health care policy.  But just as a football coach has to be able to break down film and properly execute play-calling, our leaders have to be men and women who can digest ideas, both vague political philosophy and the nuts and bolts of public policy.  

A politician needs to understand the law very well. Beyond that, politicians need to be able to think through the tradeoffs and unintended consequences of policies. Politicians need to be honest with voters about our state’s condition.  Are all of our programs necessary? Are they well-funded? Once campaigns are over, politicians have to go to work. That means creating and passing legislation, particularly when there’s no camera around to demonstrate one’s culturally conservative bonafides.

If our politicians aren’t capable of ideas, then what?  We end up with a political structure that engages in circular fights about monuments and statues.  This is important public symbolism, sure, but it doesn’t address taxation, revenue, infrastructure, health care, or education – and that’s stuff that only the government can address.    

We rely on images like hunting, church, and family dinners that are great things but don’t give any indication that a politician is prepared to be an effective leader with ideas for securing or advancing the state’s prosperity.  In the end, we get stuck in a familiar pattern not of partisan arguments but of cultural symbolism. Nothing changes except our inflamed rhetoric. If that all sounds strikingly familiar, it’s because it should.

At the end of the day, we’ve become too personally dependent on government.  Every Alabamian can post the Ten Commandments in every room in your house. You don’t have to have them displayed in every government building.  You don’t need your politicians to have good taste in clothes, wine, or art. Your leaders don’t have to hunt, fish or play baseball like your next door neighbor.  They don’t have to go to the same church as you. Our leaders need to be knowledgeable, ethical, decent, and boring. They need to figure out the tax code and health care.  They don’t need to wage culture war in Montgomery.

Our politicians should quit walking around with solutions in search of problems. We already have problems – significant ones – and we elected them to solve those problems, not to put up another monument or pass another meaningless resolution.  We demand competency in so many other things: doctors, engineers, coaches. We should likewise demand it of our political leaders.

Too often voters get a pass, and we blame everything on our hapless leaders.  It’s really the other way around.

Politics is downstream from culture, and we almost always get the leaders and politics we deserve.  If we’re dazzled by entertaining politicians, that’s what we’ll have. This primary season saw candidates promise to be the most conservative or the most common sense or the most loyal to a President who has almost nothing to do with an office in Alabama.  In the midst of that, very few candidates laid out a specific agenda, relative to their office, that was possible to achieve. Voters have to demand better from candidates.

Until we do, we’re doomed to repeat a vicious cycle. Karl Marx was wrong about nearly everything, but when he said that history repeats itself the first time as a tragedy and the second time as a farce, he could have easily been describing Alabama politics.  

Looking towards the general election, let’s ask for more from our candidates.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @yellingstopAL or email him at [email protected].

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