November 3, 2016: Election campaigns as marketplace of ideas

Belmont Citizen-Herald: November 3, 2016

A long and painful federal election season will come to a close next week.  There’s not much need to beat up on the oft-stated complaint during this election year about the substance, or lack thereof, of the Presidential campaign.  I will not repeat the thinking of many voters that the Presidential campaign, based largely on personal attacks, has not well-served the country.

Given, however, that not long after the federal elections are over, there will soon be a local election here in Belmont, even now it is not too early for us to think about what we would not merely hope for, but what we should affirmatively expect, from any candidate for a local office in Belmont’s town elections next spring. How should our community’s elections differ from that which we have been experiencing?

I was recently reading a back issue of the Christian Science Monitor, one of my favorite news sources, about “personal choice” and its relationship to free enterprise.  “[F]ree enterprise is not just about enjoying abundant goods and services,” the Monitor said. “Its subatomic structure is ideas.  Free markets run on ideas. People try them on, dispute them, reject some, adopt others. . .Good ones will become better. Lousy ones will go down the drain.”

The Monitor’s article predated the 2016 Presidential campaign. Nonetheless, it would have provided sound counsel to both of the two major political parties this year.  And, looking forward to Belmont’s local elections, there are lessons to take away for candidates and voters alike.

“Free markets run on ideas.” One role of a campaign is to present those ideas for public consumption.  A campaign that fails to do so cheats the voters out of an opportunity to hear those ideas and to “try them on.” Too often a candidate avoids offering ideas, particularly new ideas, out of fear that voters will disagree.  Such conflict avoidance does a disservice to the community. A much better approach is to follow the counsel of British author Edward de Bono, who I believe rightfully opines that “it is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong, than to be always right by having no ideas at all.” Belmont voters should demand, and candidates should commit, that our local campaigns will be idea-oriented.

The dynamic nature of a campaign, be it for President of the United States, or Belmont Selectman or local Library Commissioner, does not flow exclusively from the candidates. It flows also from the voters.  In discussing the role of ideas, the Monitor said “people try them on, dispute them, reject some, adopt others.”  Elections, in other words, assume a certain level of active voter engagement. Elections are like marketplaces, with exchanges not of currency but of opinions and values. Campaigns should not be monologues, with candidates simply talking to voters; they should instead be dialogues, with voters also talking back (as well as with each other).  Just as one cannot truly participate in a marketplace by simply showing up at the cash register, one cannot truly participate in an election by simply showing up at the voting booth.

Let’s all take a deep breath, and a brief respite, when the Presidential campaign ends. It is, however, not too early for Belmont candidates, whoever they might be and for whatever office they might seek, to pledge to run an idea-based campaign.  And it is never too early for Belmont voters to commit to being actively engaged in the community dialogue which a campaign should generate.

Through a commitment to ideas and public engagement, we can do better than what we just experienced.