Bob Van Oosterhout

Imagine if You Can
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Comments, Suggestions, Discussion

Can you imagine an ideal system for electing representatives in a democracy?

OK, how about this: Elections are an inclusive assessment of where we are and where we want to be at local, state, and national levels.  Citizens are intimately involved in the process because there is a system that helps them understand, evaluate, discuss, and prioritize issues and opportunities that concern them.  

Candidates are rated according to how well they understand and provide meaningful information to citizens, on the strength of their ideas, and their grasp of issues and opportunities from a variety of perspectives.  Candidate statements and history are evaluated according to evidence of how well they live by clearly stated values as well as by their honesty, open-mindedness, and the ability to work with people with different backgrounds and perspectives.

Candidates are formally evaluated by teams of skilled interviewers who carefully assess qualifications as well as the depth of understanding and quality of ideas about relevant issues and concerns.  Clarifying and follow-up questions are an integral part of the process. Citizens submit questions that are rated by all voters.  Those with the highest ratings are built into the series of interviews, which are recorded and made readily available.

That doesn’t sound very realistic.

You asked me to imagine.  It’s unrealistic to the extent that citizens are ill-informed, isolated into opposing camps that won’t talk to each other, and lack tools and resource that help them understand issues and candidates.

My imagination believes in accessible systems that allow citizens to understand, evaluate, discuss, and prioritize concerns and opportunities that affect their lives.  A series of national holidays provide time, space, and resources for citizen input and discussion during election years.  Voting days are also national holidays.  Fully transparent, secure, and verifiable electronic systems tally votes in real time and allow for ongoing citizen input on important issues.

What about the parties?

Oh there are lot of parties.  They’re celebrations of accomplishments, opportunities to explore ideas, and ways to connect with people with different backgrounds.

You know what I mean...

Sorry.  The purpose of political parties until you stimulated my imagination was to gain and hold power.  Political power was replaced by the power of understanding, the power of ideas, and the power of working together for the common good.

So how does your imagination deal with the influence of money and advertizing?

They became superfluous after a number of States passed ballot initiatives that required that all political advertising and campaign material be rated in much the same way that movies are rated G PG, R, or X.  An H rating indicates that ads and mailings were helpful for making intelligent decisions about candidates and issues;  PH ads are partially helpful but only from one perspective; BMD rated materials contained information that is biased, misleading and/or divisive; X rated messages significantly interfere with making an intelligent decision about candidates and issues for more reasons than can fit into an acronym.  All ads and campaign materials require a statement clearly visible in large print stating the rating as well as the extent to which a message was biased, misleading and/or divisive.  It turned out people who previously paid for ads and campaign materials mostly wanted to promote messages that interfered with intelligent decision making and being required to clearly state this diluted the power of that kind of marketing.

Money departed from politics because it wasn’t of much use.  Requirements for total transparency on the source of contributions and the agenda of those making them combined with the ready availability of tools and resources to help citizens make informed, rational decisions dried up that man-made swamp for good.  Ballot proposals built these requirements into the electoral system.  Full disclosure about the content and funding of sixty second ads and slick mailers couldn’t compete with a deepening understanding of issues and candidates.

What about well-rehearsed talking points and spin?

As citizens began to understand and discuss issues that were important to them, they realized that arguing about abstractions like whether government should provide a solution to problems or government was the source of problems led us in circles and ultimately nowhere.  It became clear that the things politicians used to fight about were simply selling points that had little to do with actually solving problems or taking advantage of opportunities.  

Talking points and spin were replaced by intelligent discussion of issues and opportunities based on verifiable evidence that takes history, context, long-term implications, and other perspectives into account.

Ok, now imagine the worst possible system for democratic elections.

Mmmm.  OK.  Elections are a money-raising and marketing extravaganzas.  Billions of dollars are spent to manipulate and isolate citizens through the use of fear and carefully designed dead-end slogans, labels, and categories that keep people from attempting to understand issues and each other.  
Elections are an adversarial process that focus primarily on tearing down and diminishing opponents.  The press and media cover them like sporting events and the final outcome depends on how may loyal fans each side can attract and get to the polls.  Questions from citizens and the press are skillfully dodged and dismissed and there is very little intelligent discussion of the nature of problems and opportunities or how we can effectively and realistically respond to them.  

That’s not very imaginative! It sounds like the system we have now.

My point exactly! ...Now let’s imagine a way to get from where we are to where we could be.