Maybe it’s like the argument that given enough time, a chimp with a keyboard would eventually hammer out Hamlet, but I’m thinking the messy GOP presidential campaign is inching its way towards clarity.
Not that the process will produce outcomes extreme partisans will like. Disappointment is often the byproduct of a clarifying experience, especially if success is measured by outcomes perfectly in sync with the purest of visions. In that sense, the Republican ordeal might have something to teach us about public processes in the communities and regions in which we work.
Like the environments many planners discover when they’re involved in controversial projects (rezoning efforts come to mind), the context for rational policy discussion in the GOP primaries is, shall we say, testy. Since the Big Recession settled in, it’s been one long “mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore” tantrum. All you need to know about the mood of the country going into the 2010 and 2012 election cycles was this headline from a spring 2010 Pew survey: “Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor.”
Discontent carried the day in the 2010 mid-term elections and set the stage for the 2012 GOP primaries. One by one, Republican contenders rose to channel the rage, basked momentarily in the media spotlight, then melted in the glare. As of this writing, the only anger outlier left standing is Newt Gingrich. And it will shock just about everyone with a feel for American politics if Newt is able to adapt his human hand grenade style to the demands of the more complex electoral environments in Florida and beyond.
Barring something unforeseen, Mitt Romney, whom many Republicans suspect to be far closer than they like to the current White House inhabitant, will be the nominee. And to appeal to the more moderate voters he’ll need in the general election, Romney will have to reclaim turf abandoned by the radical right during the GOP primaries. The fears of the fiercest conservative partisans will be realized. But the chances for better outcomes for the country are likely to increase.
Bottom line: Rage is not enough. Given a little time and exposure, ideas propelled principally by fear and mistrust lose traction. Inherent contradictions expose themselves. And advocates who can’t produce a convincing argument for how their proposals will right the wrongs that inspired all the anger in the first place will fall from favor.
So how do we apply those lessons to local public engagement processes? First of all, let’s don’t fall into the trap of assuming that passion of any sort is permanent and that we should contort processes and policies to channel it. Anger has a half life. Over time, the toxicity diminishes. And, eventually, we’ll be left with doing the hard work of sorting through competing ideas, making hard choices about strategies, then implementing the ones with the highest likelihood of success.
Too many public engagement processes confuse means and ends. I’ve heard consultants, in a desperate effort to gain the trust of warring factions, say, “Every idea has equal value.” Nope. Some ideas are lousy, and we should design processes to help us sort through concepts and toss out the ones that are dead ends as quickly as possible.
Of course, this should be a collaborative endeavor. There has to be general agreement on the sorting rules. Together, we should arrive at goals and develop consensus-driven strategies in line with those goals. But achieving the goals is the point. Public engagement is a necessary component of the process to get there, but it ain’t THE process.
All the faded GOP hopefuls successfully engaged the public and successfully channeled the passion of the moment. But when primary voters got a look at how that passion played out in a policy to-do list, contradictions emerged. Ambivalence grew. And now it looks as if Republican primary voters will default to the least passionate candidate in the lineup.
By November, when the only vote that really counts occurs, it will have taken three-plus years for the country to slog through the tantrum stages to some sort of rough, unsatisfying consensus. If we’re to fulfill what we promise to communities and regions, we’ll need to get there a whole lot faster, and we’ll need outcomes to be a whole lot more satisfying. Without a plan to work through temporary passions to get to strategies with chances for permanent success, we’ll all be losers.
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