Hunter: Candidates, not voters, the problem with political environment

By Kayla Hunter

Any political thought I’ve ever had or ideology I’ve honed or scrapped within the past… Any political thought I’ve ever had or ideology I’ve honed or scrapped within the past decade all began with punk rock.

I was 13, impressionable, and had an outspoken older sister with spiky black hair. All I needed were a few months of encountering bands with the word “against” in their names and lyrics filled with images of riots and bruises left by police billy clubs and I was hooked: an angsty, hormone-driven anarcho-punk.

Then the Iraq war began, and I did what any bewildered 14-year-old would do — complained loudly to my best friend on the phone and scribbled letters to President Bush that were never sent. I fantasized a lot about rallies and protests in the next few years, but, honestly, was too much of an introvert to get involved in anything but Model U.N.

Now, in college, the story’s the same — I’m not out there lying in front of tanks, but I take classes on the global and domestic issues that interest me and vote with my wallet. And, yes, I ran down Forbes Avenue flailing my arms like a lunatic when Obama was elected.

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But this year, something is different. I don’t rush to my TV or computer anymore to watch the President’s speech. I avoid any headline about any politician. And right now, I’m groaning about going to the polls in November.

Because, as much as I care about the problems politicians are supposed to fix, I feel as much brotherly affinity for this present breed of sensationalist celebrities posing as candidates as I do for celebrities themselves — which makes gathering the will to vote for one a bit unappealing, like choosing who has the best Vaseline-coated teeth in Miss America.

I know the criticism, that people our age don’t vote because we’re terribly disengaged wastes of space, but I’m saying that being less than eager to vote doesn’t necessarily translate into political apathy. Instead it can indicate disillusionment with political representatives, their dripping rhetorical flourishes, and their usual inability to do what they say they’re going to do.

And, beyond that, it can be a symptom of an unfortunate feeling of powerlessness in the face of the most powerful government in the world, the recognition that the intricacies of the American political system are vastly more complex than an average citizen — i.e., me — can comprehend.

For example, the day the health-care bill was passed last spring, I spent all afternoon scouring news articles and synopses online, trying to decipher the myriad ways it would effect the different sectors of the population and whether I could decide if it was, on balance, positive or negative. After several hours, I went cross-eyed and quit.

Yet you wouldn’t think there were so many gray areas in the issues if you watched the news or the raging debates between the increasingly polarized political elite. This trend of polarization is worrisome to me, especially as I grow older, less extreme and a little more open-minded. Just when I’m able to take my dad’s opinions about crunchy conservatism seriously — and even agree with him on quite a few fronts — the politicians and pundits are opting to look at things in black and white, putting up blinders to certain inconvenient facts and perspectives.

For people concerned with getting the whole story, free of agenda, this can make things tricky. Seth Bush, the former president of Pitt’s environmental club Free the Planet, who’s lobbying against drilling in the Marcellus Shale, admitted his frustration that both sides of the issue have certain facts wrong, or rather present statistics in a misleading way. “My main goal right now is educating people about the issue,” he said. “But it’s hard when the information isn’t always clear.” Bush is a much more politically optimistic and engaged person than I am, but it goes to show that this frustration with the effects of polarization transcends levels of political awareness.

My question is, why does the political system have to function like this, in a good versus evil way, when life is never like that? Why do politicians keep trying to get further and further away from their opponents instead of finding middle ground, where most of their constituents are?

Well, perhaps it isn’t altogether their fault, but rather the culmination of outside pressure to present themselves in a certain way, since the political elites are constantly under unrelenting public scrutiny — thanks in large part to their longtime “frenemy,” the mass media.

Because we all know that whoever screams the most nonsense the loudest will definitely be on the front page in the morning.

As much as I love pundits like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for making politics fun, I can’t help but wonder whether examining every facet of these people’s lives takes a toll on the way they perform, or even makes them sneakier than they might have originally been. In a recent column in The New York Times titled “Would You Run?” David Brooks points out that, after all, what matters to the public is not the good in a politician’s career, but, rather, his mistakes. “Nobody who walks into the valley of our political system emerges unscathed,” he says.

So whether the present state of politics is the fault of the nosy media or the self-promoting politicians, greedy special interests or insane radicals, I can’t say — nor will I place blame.

But I will say it’s a less than desirable environment for everyone, especially voters.

Yet despite it all, come Nov. 2, this former punk will drag herself to the polls, more out of a sense of obligation than any real passion.

Because, then, when things get better or get worse or don’t change at all, at least I can say I tried.

E-mail Kayla at [email protected]