The Left Won the Contest – Now They Must Lead

Michael Shires
Associate Professor of Public Policy, Pepperdine University

This year’s elections brought out some of the worst in people on both sides of the equation, but on the balance the left wing appears to have won the title. This really was an election about winning at all costs to them. And win they did.

First, there were the skirmishes over signs and bumper stickers. My own yard sign was vandalized once, and those of many of my neighbors and friends experienced similar mishaps. Reading the news across the state, there appeared to be many instances of “hate” actions by members of both the left and the right. Perhaps most visceral and visual was the hanging of Governor Palin in effigy and the depiction of Senator McCain in flames. Ironically, similar depictions of Obama and Biden would likely have resulted in criminal action.

Second, there was the rotation of mudslinging and mailbox stuffing. This was bad enough—and probably close to a draw, although as a resident of the 19th Senate and 37th Assembly districts, the mailers ran about 3:1 Democrat to Republican, with many of the nastiest (of the “this guy/gal hates animals and beats/kills innocent children” variety) coming from the Democratic candidates in the district. On top of that, Democratic leaders pumped thousands of extra dollars into my unfortunate district to make sure there were plenty of these to go around.

Then there were the telephone calls. While most of them were at least civil, there was one egregious exception—one that rankled my nerves and sensibilities. At 4:38 pm Pacific on Election Day—almost 3.5 hours before polls closed, I received this call at home declaring Barack Obama the winner and intonating that Republicans didn’t really need to go to the polls to vote. The cowards behind the call did not even have the gumption to identify themselves.

While I am pretty sure this is a violation of state law and that it would be a small matter for the Attorney General to track down the violators, I doubt that Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown will find it important enough to pursue. In any case, its intent is clear—to deny the electoral voice of those who they fear will be in opposition to them. It turns out that the left is real worried about voter suppression when it affects their side, but they are happy to pursue these heinous tactics when there is danger that they will lose.

But the consequences of this win-at-all-costs approach to elections are high and their antics have further fractured an already fragile political landscape. The goodwill between people that is the social fabric that lubricates the wheels of our democracy is tainted by these abuses and, after these instances, there remains little desire or willingness to work together or collaborate—even at the community level.

There was a time when candidates would run on character and principle—something that both parties and both wings forgot in this election. The concept of disagreeing while treating the other side with respect has disappeared in an era of divide-and-conquer politics. With the amplification of modern media, the injury to our body politic is multiplied dramatically with each passing election.
This past election eroded another layer of the civility that is the bedrock of our political institutions and, if you think this past summer’s budget stalemate was bad, wait until this round. And wait we will—the polarization that the antics in this month’s election magnified will further handcuff the legislature’s ability to act any time soon—even though the need is great.

This fiscal year will be one of the most challenging years in the history of California. For legislators in either party to work together to craft what will have to be unpopular solutions, elected members must believe in their districts that people feel strongly enough about the overall needs of the state, that they will be willing to step beyond their political ideologies and work together.

It would be foolish to wax romantically for the days when we had civil elections (there never was such a time) and California is actually pretty tame compared to the ads seen in some states (try a close election in Washington State). But we do need to look for ways that we can work together to resolve the crises before us.

And it is incumbent on those in leadership—the Democrats now—to reach out to the other side to make this community building possible. As the party in power it is their responsibility to lead and to legitimately reach across the aisle and help to reconstruct the state’s social capital. And I look forward to watching it unfold in the weeks to come.

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