Opinion and Forefront

FARGO: Too many politicians dodge the public

October 13, 2012

Anthony FargoIn Monroe County, the League of Women Voters has been having trouble with its candidate forums for local and state races. Some of the candidates refuse to take part.

As The Herald-Times of Bloomington reported, some Republican candidates believed the questions—and the questioners—had a liberal bias. The Monroe County Republican Party chairman, Steve Hogan, was quoted as saying: “I understand their sentiment.”

Although Ann Wrenn, a co-president of the Bloomington-Monroe County League of Women Voters chapter, told the paper the league was staunchly nonpartisan, the league was not blameless.

As the paper noted, the league invites a panel to ask the candidates questions. At one forum for a state House race, one of the panelists was an Indiana University labor studies professor with a record of advocating for worker rights and against the Republican-supported right-to-work law that passed earlier this year. No one with similar credentials from the other side of the issue was on the panel.

The paper editorialized that both the Republicans who ducked out of the forums and the league shared blame. The Republicans should not have declined to attend just because they might face hostile questions, but the league should have done a better job of making sure its panels of questioners were truly nonpartisan.

I admire the paper’s attempt to be balanced in casting blame, but I think it’s a false balance. I’d put at least 90 percent of the blame on the politicians.

We all have a tendency to try to shut out opinions we disagree with. Psychologists call that tendency cognitive dissonance. Hearing views that challenge our beliefs creates confusion (dissonance), which we try to resolve by avoiding those views and seeking out reinforcement from those who believe as we do. It’s why more liberals than conservatives listen to Rachel Maddow and more conservatives than liberals listen to Rush Limbaugh.

But most of us aren’t candidates for office.

What I find disturbing about the candidate forum issue in Monroe County is that the candidates seem to be saying they don’t want to engage with views different from theirs. Candidates, however, can’t use the cognitive dissonance excuse. If they are elected, they will represent all of us, not just those of us they agree with. That’s why they’re called “representatives.”

This is not just a Democratic or Republican issue. This cuts to the heart of what it means to run for a public office at any level—local, state or national. If you are running solely because you want to have your views validated through the ballot box, you should rethink your candidacy. If you want to do a better job than the current occupant of the office in representing the views of most of the constituents in your region, then run.

The League of Women Voters could have done a better job of choosing the panels of questioners at its forums, but that error did not justify candidates’ going AWOL. If a candidate can’t stand the heat in a pre-election forum, what is he or she going to do when faced with a tough issue while in office?

Another concern I have about the no-show candidates is that, under league rules, the failure of one candidate to appear meant the forum was canceled, because the league does not allow a candidate to debate an empty chair.

I’m not sure canceling the forums was necessary. Debating an empty chair seemed to work for Clint Eastwood.•

Fargo is an Indiana University journalism professor and member of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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