Politics won't change until the voters stop rewarding street fights

Jennifer Imsande
Jennifer Imsande, Duluth, is associate director of the Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Imsande

The morning after the election, a friend asked whether I regretted my vote for Tom Horner, now that Minnesota is heading into a recount and Tom Emmer might be Minnesota's next governor.

No. I don't.

Yes, I worry about what Emmer will do if he gets behind the wheel. We have complicated problems, and he knows only one speed: Cut taxes and services. We've got little people, poor people, sick people and old people buckled into this car. He might drive us into a wall.

I still don't regret my vote.

Yes, my support for the Independence Party's Horner struck some of my colleagues and friends as wrongheaded. Don't I know how the political process works? Don't I know that a vote for a third-party candidate is wasted? If she runs, she can't win. If she wins, she lacks the infrastructure to govern.

Maybe that's been true. But maybe it's been true only up to today.

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Our political system warrants our respect. It is designed to help us modulate the instincts, needs and interpretations of the many into the one. It should function more like a symphony than a street fight.

But at present our candidates brawl while we stand on the side and watch. We cheer. We toss money and water at our guy so he can keep throwing and taking punches. Meanwhile, streets go unpaved. Children go without lunch money and health care. Bed bugs reproduce.

We blame the other guy for starting it. We don't question our role in maintaining it.

Do I believe that the Republicans have tended more often to fight dirty? Yes. Massaging racism, xenophobia and scarcity into votes is the definition of dirty and small. It comes from a place of weakness and fear -- that we'll lose something we have, or not get something we want.

Yet Wednesday morning I turned on the radio and listened to Democratic Sen. Harry Reid -- a man I might have voted for -- assure the voters of Nevada that the bell declaring his victory "isn't the end of the fight, it's the start of the next round." Wonderful.

This battle, he says, isn't about "us vs. them." Except boxing matches sort of always are.

"I know what it's like to take a punch," he said. He's taken a few: in the streets, the ring, and the U.S. Senate. But we shouldn't feel sorry for him, he said. Those punches are nothing "compared to the fights families are facing all over Nevada, right now."

Oh, I think those fights are all too much like the ones families are facing. The divorcing, separating, rancorous, plate-throwing kinds of families. When families fight, parents indulge themselves and their egos at the expense of children and bystanders. Each believes that his or her lapses are justified, even necessary, because the other side is up to dirty tricks.

So is the lesson today - again -- that we can't afford to turn away from the fight? That we don't dare vote for a third party candidate? Only if you've given yourself no more choice than that of a spectator putting down money at a title bout. Only if you can't imagine something different.

I can. The ring will come down. It will come down when enough of us turn our attention from the brawl. When we work to reform the processes and practices that reward fighting.

It means I'll continue voting for the right candidate, and not just for the one I think has the best chance of winning. It also means working to support instant runoff voting, which encourages civility and playing to the center. And it means learning to be comfortable in the discomfort of the middle.

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Jennifer Imsande is associate director of the Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership program at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.