This column isn’t about me, but if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to talk briefly about my own short-lived political career in order to make a broader point about today’s political dynamics as played out in the current presidential primaries.
I ran for Cincinnati City Council in 2007, and while unsuccessful, I did well enough to get appointed to fill Mayor John Cranley’s seat when he left City Council in early 2009. I didn’t enjoy much of a honeymoon, however, as the impact of the Great Recession hit locally, and Cincinnati suddenly faced a $50 million budget shortfall. And this is when I got a crash course in politics.
Councilmembers who I thought I knew well started holding press conferences that, in my view, played off ignorance: they claimed the deficit wasn’t real, and that lots of police officers were going to needlessly get laid off. From my own research (I came from a policy background and knew how to dissect budgets) however, I learned that while public safety consumed two-thirds of the city budget, not all dollars were being spent in ways that made us safer. For example, why were we spending millions in costly overtime for walking patrols when police visibility should have been prioritized and integrated into FOP contracts? I also concluded that if the FOP simply considered forgoing a raise for their members for the first time in five years, then they could largely achieve the cuts that were asked of their department without layoffs.
But such modest sacrifice was not considered. Furthermore, as the city’s newest Councilmember, I was depicted as the vital 5th vote (out of nine councilmember) that could save police jobs, or, be the guy who does them in. I confess, the temptation was great. I could’ve branded myself all the way to Election Day as the guy who saved police jobs and kept our city safe. But I knew the issue was a charade, and it had little policy integrity. If we spared the police department of any cuts in face of a large deficit, the balance would be taken from other programs like basic services. I didn’t bite, despite the temptation.
My larger point? Locally and nationally, the politics of fear mongering and division can win elections. Apparently, no one knows this as well as Donald Trump. We are now seeing his encouragements of violence at rallies leading to actual violence. We are seeing him pit different groups of Americans against one another—e.g. preying on ignorance about our nation’s immigrant tradition and about Islam. Nothing comes cheap, easy and instantly gratifying than stoking anger. To the credit of Governor John Kasich, he has waged a unifying presidential campaign that is the antidote to Trump’s day to day, free association belching of discord.
Many Americans have legit reasons for being angry and scared. Middle class wages have been stagnant. The powerful seem to operate by their own rules. New enemies take shapes and forms we aren’t accustomed as nation-less terrorist cells. Some feel their faith and traditions are being undermined. A vulnerable America deserves empathy and action, and Democrats and Republicans have been complicit in systemically redistributing wealth and influence away from working people.
The proverbial “little guy” deserves an agenda that respond to his fears. What “he” is getting is a showman that is stoking his fears for political advantage.
The greatest political compliment I ever received was from my friend George who said I was one of the few politicians he knew “who cared more about doing his job than keeping his job.” In some ways I lived up to this compliment, and other ways I didn’t. But we deserve leaders who put their townships, their cities and their nation ahead of their own election or re-election. Trump’s pathological self-worship and lack of depth has led him to fan flames without concern for their consequences because in the end he serves mostly himself.
The politics of division and fear mongering are cheap and easy. Politicians can take it to an art form. Public servants, by contrast, take on the far more difficult task of seeking genuine ways to serve the people and appeal to their better angels.