What America Needs

While writing about an idea I had to support political reform, I watched the vice-presidential debate. I focused on the nonverbal messages.

What America needs is not change per se–it’s reform. Is there too much money in politics? Of course. Is gerrymandering wrong? Yes. How about trying to prevent people from voting? Should be a crime. Pay to play? No way. Lobbyists writing laws? Needs to be illegal. The revolving door? Exit, my friend. How about writing the summary of a ballot issue so it reads as if a vote for it is a vote for the opposite position? I vote no way.

Kaine, you look nervous. You are swallowing, twitching, and moving your head in ways that suggests you are tense, if not a little scared. Pence, you are relaxed. You seem in control. While not speaking in the split TV screen, you look composed.

While there are many issues that deeply divide the country like abortion and gun control, most nonpoliticians can agree about the need for reform in the political system. Most Americans would support an end, for example, to gerrymandering. So, why doesn’t this happen? Another example, Americans question the fairness of the electoral college. Why is this not discussed in the chambers of the Senate? One more example, Americans don’t like the advantages given to incumbents. Can we reduce them? The final example, Americans don’t like the two-party system. Why do we allow these two parties to dictate how elections will be conducted?

Why can’t “we the people” reform the political system? Simple. The party in power benefits from the status quo.

Kaine, why are you interrupting so often? Don’t keep asking the moderator for help; it makes you look weak. What is that lapel pin? Is it a tip of the hat to Bernie Sanders and his Senate pin? Pence, your voice gets a little whiney at times. You sound like a complainer. We see the flag on your lapel and the blue tie. Cool.

There have been bipartisan attempts to prevent abuses of power, but they do not last or are limited in scope. What’s the underlying problem? Politicians put their party and personal interests ahead of the good of the country. Not a new or shocking claim. What is challenging is stopping this self-centered behavior from happening. Various groups, like Common Cause, have been lobbying for reform for a long tome. But the reform movement has lost its steam. Lobbying seems to play into the politicians’ hands. It’s business as usual. Should I write another e-mail to Mitch McConnell begging him to call for a vote on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee? Didn’t work. I don’t even think that electing a reformer, like Bernie Sanders, would make much difference. The people have to have a more powerful way to unite.

Kaine, you are on camera. You may well be shifting your gaze from the camera to the moderator because, I suspect, Pence has taken too much time, but these shifts make you look less trustworthy. Eye contact is needed even when you aren’t speaking. Slow down. Your speaking rate is too fast. It weakens the effectiveness of your points. Pence, you have a reassuring voice. You talk authoritatively, though inaccurately. Looks and sounds good. You are grimacing every once in a while. That does not look so good.

Reformers need a new approach. I’ll offer a suggestion. Reformers need to create a metanarrative that calls attention to the problems caused by selfishness. This kind of metanarrative based PR campaign has been done by a number of groups. My first exposure to this kind of political metanarrative was Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. Politically brilliant, although not totally effective. Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection pledge had a big political effect for years, but eventually fizzled out. The NRA’s grades for candidates has been around for quite some time, and the NRA endorsement continues to be an important concern for many politicians (the money involved doesn’t hurt). Lastly, I’ll mention fact checking services. No one likes a Pants on Fire. These are all ways to measure a candidate’s behavior on an issue that is easy to digest. The evaluators made news and people weighed these evaluations into the equation of how they will vote. Politicians had to pay attention.

Kaine, you lost the nonverbal show badly. I don’t even think you did all that well in the verbal part of the debate, although you had most of the ammo. Pence, you looked calm and collected. You get the Alpha dog award. On the verbal side, you avoided answering a number of questions, but you defended your running mate effectively. I noticed you both shook hands at the end and patted each other on the back. One of you did two sets of pats, just to make sure.

So, what’s my reform idea? We need to assemble a group of respected retired politicians from both parties, reporters from various news organizations, and maybe some anonymous staffers. Ask the group to rate politicians quarterly on a narrow set of questions, like: To what extent did the politician put their own interests or the interests of their party ahead of the interests of the country? That’s the most important question, but we should add two more:
* How often did the politician reach across the aisle to work with people from the opposition party?
* To what extent did the politician support reform?
If we had these ratings, the next task would be to would publicize them.

We are tired of gridlock. I hope we are tired of this kind of presidential campaign as well. If so, we can create a voter guide using the selfishness ratings. Build a website. Push for newspaper space on political reform. The members of the parties will only act if it is in their self-interest, so the people have to find a way to make reform efforts relevant. If voters really want to fix a broken system, they can’t rely on elected officials to do so. We have to start by letting people know who is blocking progress and who is trying to make things work.

Kaine and Pence didn’t talk much about the issues, although they were a bit more on track than Hillary and Donald. Mostly, it was political theater. One actor was better than the other. Maybe we need to figure out how to reform the debates and the primaries as well. Could we ever have a serious discussion about how to solve the challenges the country faces rather than having a forum for attacking the opponents?

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