Want Change? Vote Local and Don’t Buy the Con

In Much Ado by Catherine Landisleave a COMMENT

We had quite the kerfuffle here in House District 18 this summer, and I don’t mean the infamous shoving incident between Martin Daniel and Steve Hall. I’m referring to the flier war between those two that took place in the stack of junk mail on my kitchen counter.

The first came from Hall and accused Daniel of supporting ISIS. I could fill pages with reasons to deprive Mr. Daniel of another term in the state House, starting with his antagonism against the University of Tennessee’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, but what planet—or hallucinogenic drug—do you have to be on to believe that this warrior against gender-neutral pronouns would also support a terrorist group? Daniel’s actual remarks about ISIS were in defense of free speech, an argument similar to one the ACLU used in 1977 to defend the right of Nazis to parade in Skokie, Ill.: Free speech includes offensive speech or it’s not free. Hall surely knew that. But if politics is a game, he was willing to play rough, and if you can paint your opponent as an ISIS supporter, game over.

Daniel was playing, too. One choice flier featured a photograph of him aiming a gun—and let me say for the record that nothing could have been more offensive in the wake of recent high-profile acts of gun violence. The flier asserted that Daniel “DEFENDS our Second Amendment rights.” Good for him. As if those rights were threatened. Daniel’s game perpetuates the increasingly tiresome and dangerous myth that constitutional, common-sense gun legislation is exactly the same thing as the government taking your guns away. It’s like saying: “First they installed traffic lights; then they came for our cars.”

The true harm in the hyperbole comes when legislators paint themselves into corners and can’t govern. If, for instance, Daniel were to decide a particular gun safety regulation would be good for Tennessee, how could he vote for it? He couldn’t after insinuating gun control laws by definition violate the Constitution. That’s what is happening to Insure Tennessee: Once you label it an apocalyptic march toward tyranny, you can’t touch it no matter how much sense it makes or how many lives and jobs it might save. You can’t tell people the house is on fire and then say never mind. When you yell “FIRE,” people bring hoses.

Martin Daniel won his primary, but it was a shallow victory. What does winning even mean with only 9.4 percent of registered Knox County voters bothering to show up? Maybe my District 18 neighbors are happy to be represented by a guy who pretends to champion limited government except when it comes to women’s health or messing with UT programs he knows nothing about. Or maybe they aren’t happy. Maybe they’re waiting to replace him with his Democratic opponent, Brandi Price, in November. Maybe they don’t care. I know some folks in District 2 who care deeply that their candidate for Knox County Commission lost by only 75 votes.

I must acknowledge and do understand: It’s actually really hard to pay attention to local politics. Working, raising kids, negotiating the intricacies of our busy lives, it’s easy for an election to come around without our knowing whom to vote for. Worse, there’s often no choice. Who can get excited about a one-person race? And it’s easy to forget how important our local elections are when the gravitational pull of the presidential race is so strong. But what happens in Knox County Schools has little to do with what happens in Washington. Same for the fact that you have to show your ID to vote. Same for healthcare access, workplace rules, wages, law enforcement, women’s rights, and a lot more of what we care about. While so much focus is on Washington, state legislatures around the country, including ours, can be up to a great deal of mischief.

Citizens who choose not to vote because it’s too much trouble, or because they think it doesn’t matter, or because all politicians are the same, or because they don’t like choosing between the lesser of two evils should tell that to the poor and marginalized who end up bearing the consequences of regressive policies.

So vote, please. And keep in mind that democracy requires compromise, not purity. If ever it were to be possible for you to get everything you want, then the mechanism exists for your political opponents to get everything they want, and that is not a world you want to live in. Voting does not mean getting everything you want, but it might mean getting a heck of a lot less of the boneheaded things you don’t want.

Politics can be messy. Infuriating. Frustrating. But it doesn’t have to be stupid. We all could get a little better at recognizing the difference between news and propaganda. We could resist the wormhole of social media sucking us into the land of snarkdom and conflation. We could get hold of some working bull manure detectors. Because you can’t blame the politicians. If this stuff didn’t work, they wouldn’t do it, and evidently it’s easy these days to get people to believe that “Sharia Law” is just around the corner, and the federal government is itching to confiscate your guns before declaring martial law.

Since when did we turn into such gullible scaredy-cats? Has no one seen the Wizard of Oz? Spoiler alert: There’s a con man behind that curtain.

With Much Ado, Catherine Landis examines how political decisions and social trends affect the lives of the people around her. She is particularly interested in issues concerning feminism, civil rights, education, the environment, and immigration reform. A former newspaper reporter, she has published two novels, Some Days There’s Pie (St. Martin’s Press) and Harvest (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). She lives in Knoxville.

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