There is a wonderful irony about this post. By its nature it is directed at people who do not read my blog. I am writing for people who are actually interested in drilling down on issues and understanding them better. They do not necessarily agree with my perspective but they are interested in the facts and documented narratives that are at the heart of what I write. In fact, they may very well disagree with me on charter change as is the case with my friend Chris Mathiesen. The readers welcome the challenge of rethinking issues.
This charter campaign has been a teachable moment for me. What I have been learning has not been necessarily pleasant but it has revealed a trend in politics that I had begun to sense but had not quite grasped. To me the charter change campaign is a reflection of the worst of what has become routine cynical campaign techniques.
Matt Taibi is the political essayist for Rolling Stone Magazine. In a talk he gave recently on the past Presidential election, he explained that there is an entire sub specialty among political operatives that crafts speeches for these campaigns. Using a variety of methods including focus groups and polling (you will remember that Bob Turner promoted one of these polls before it was “outed”), they seek phrases that will resonate with voters. These are things like “wealth creators”, “common ground”, etc. They then string these together to create the appearance of a speech. They are looking for the “tune” that will make voters feel good about the candidate. “Such and such will stand up for America.” “Such and such is committed to inclusion not prejudice,” ad nausea. These are all phrases with no real policies behind them because once you get into actual substance, messages tend to lose their happy factor.
This technique has become particularly popular in the age of the web where tweeting and Facebook have become the new forms of communication. In a time when ideas are limited to being expressed in 140 characters or to photographs with captions or memes, a mass of people have no time or interest in anything requiring sitting down and spending time carefully considering the complexity of issues. For many the only question is how many stars did they get.
There is also the tribal effect. The scope of information is further reduced by the fact that the only people to be listened to are members of your particular tribe. People are busy and it is so much easier to go to the Facebook page of a reliable leader of the tribe to find out what the correct position should be.
We can find many of these techniques in the current charter campaign in the city. While examples of the use of these techniques can be found on both sides of this issue the pro charter forces seem to me to most consistently use the techniques described above.
“Silos” and “fiefdoms” are tag words liberally used in charter materials and these are words I often hear repeated almost by rote from many of their supporters both in the press, in person, and on social media. These terms are rarely accompanied by any specific examples. When specific examples are given they turn out to be projects that have been held up because of factors that have nothing to do with interdepartmental rivalries or tensions or the form of Saratoga’s government.
Take their complaint that extending the Geyser Crest Bike path has taken 13 years. This is true but the delay has had nothing to do with the Commission form of government or tensions between departments. In fact the Council vote was 5-0 in favor of the path. Getting state approvals and funding were the main culprits in this process and that won’t change with a city manager. What is most disingenuous is that some of the projects that have not been completed are due to lawsuits brought by some of the very people who are now cynically telling voters to blame the Commissioners and the form of government. And guess what—citizens sue cities that have city managers too.
But the current campaign for charter change is also incorporating many of the techniques its supporters found most distasteful in the Trump campaign.
I have found myself in casual conversation with a variety of charter supporters who are the same people who look down their noses at the people who supported Donald Trump. They marvel at the gullibility of such people who believe Trump’s promises to say bring back coal production. They contemptuously ask how “those people” can ignore facts and they consider themselves far superior in intellect and knowledge to the people who voted for Donald Trump.
I have attempted to engage some of them in conversation about the proposed charter. I have found that they often have never heard or read anything critical of the charter and that they have absolutely no interest in hearing any counter arguments. What I hear from them are beliefs that there will be no politics or conflict once we have a city manager. Projects will be completed quickly and efficiently. Remember, these are often the same people who cannot understand how people accept everything Donald Trump says and yet they similarly have often accepted the arguments for charter change without considering that some of these arguments may be based on misrepresentations.
So let’s look more closely at some of the materials from the charter change leadership, particularly the group It’s Time Saratoga are distributing in the community. Their door hanger is a shrewd and pernicious piece of propaganda, a study in shallowness and spin. To me it epitomizes the decline in political discourse.
Here is what it promises. My comments are in parenthesis:
SAVE MONEY, LOWER TAXES (Well, there is a phrase that anyone can latch on to)
IMMEDIATELY: HALF A MILLION $$ PER YEAR (The web people like to use symbols like $$ when they can. The highest savings number the Charter Commission has used is $403,000.00 but apparently the author(s) of this door hanger thought $500,000.00 has a better ring to it).
GET BETTER SERVICES (Your street will be plowed continually during snow storms. No more need for snow tires, no more walls of packed snow in front of your driveway)
DEPARTMENTS RUN BY PROFESSIONALS RATHER THAN POLITICIANS (This business with the word “professionals” shouts competence. One wonders how the USA has survived continuously electing people as President or allowing people to be appointed to the Supreme Court without requiring any degrees or experience)
A UNITED CITY HALL, NOT FIVE DEPARTMENTS (“United” has a clarion ring to it. This nicely plays up the narrative of the divisiveness that people hate about politics. Except there will still be departments and conflicts as in any organization )
HOLD CITY HALL ACCOUNTABLE (Harder to do with a council with four year staggered terms!)
NO MORE $750,000.00 OFFICE RENOVATIONS WHILE ESSENTIAL SERVICES DON’T GET DONE (Commissioner Mathiesen, who is a major proponent of charter change, told me that city hall is in serious need of renovation. He also took exception to the allegations that essential services aren’t getting done. Still “while” is great because it establishes that the crisis is here now.)
No More Back Room Deals ( Now there is a great phrase right out of the spin room. If Donald Trump promised this these people would be doubled over with laughter, but coming from the proponents of charter change phrases like that are perfectly ok.)
I am going to put these three together:
GEYSER ROAD PATH: 13 YEARS
NEW POLICE STATION: 20 YEARS AND COUNTING
EASTSIDE FIRE STATION: 20 YEARS AND COUNTING
(Chris Mathiesen and I discussed these claims. He was intimately aware of the issues of the eastside fire station which he and his deputy spent a huge amount of time on. People do not want their taxes going up so you cannot just open up the city’s pocket book and buy up land. There are issues about where it should be and what environmental factors might complicate the building of the facility depending upon the land. As Chris noted the city has a bare bones staff so it is not easy to put the resources into these projects given the other demands on the players in all of this. And then there is the lawsuit brought against the project which was only recently dismissed. Ironically some of the same people involved in this and other lawsuits cynically overlook the role they themselves have played in slowing down these projects and join charter supporters in peddling the myth that if it weren’t for the commission form of government these projects would have been finished by now. )
The leadership of the Charter Commission have crafted a campaign based on “alt facts” and false promises. The repeated references to the phony city hall “survey”, the interviews with deputies that never happened and the false promises of “no more back room deals” and “end delays” are readily embraced and shamelessly echoed by their supporters.
These are the techniques used and the promises made by callow politicians…and the leadership of the Charter Commission.