An engaged – and very angry – electorate
The primary election is over now, but even before the vote tallies made winners and losers out of so many candidates, this election season seemed to be sweeping in a tide of activism in the mountains.
The truth of this struck home the night of April 22. I had just moderated a political forum in Swain County, which was a first for me. More importantly, it was the first time many in Swain remembered a political forum being held during the primary election.
The turnout from the public wasn’t as good as it could have been, but that’s to be expected. Most people are content to read about the issues in the papers or vote for friends or friends of friends, and go on about their business. I’ve had an opportunity to attend dozens of local forums over the years, and more often than not organizers end up disappointed with the attendance. At the Swain County Center for the Arts at Swain County High School, about 75 folks showed up.
But not everyone is content to sit at home and read about it. As former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neil is credited with saying, “All politics is local.” County commissioners are about as local as it gets, and their decisions affect our lives in everything from the quality of our schools to public safety.
This truism manifested itself in two ways. One, the number of candidates running for county commission and sheriff in Swain County was, in a word, staggering. For the most part the candidates were well meaning people with a desire to give back to their communities. With 13 candidates running for commissioner and eight running for sheriff in Swain County, the election was somewhat of a free for all.
In Haywood County, a total of 11 candidates ran for three open seats on the county board. I can’t remember a time when so many local elections had so many viable candidates running for office.
The second point that hit home after the Swain forum was about the organizers. Neither Vicki Crews or Robin Hamilton are lifelong residents of Swain. Both moved here as adults, and neither come from a background of political activism. They simply wanted to get all the candidates together and allow the public — and themselves — the opportunity to gather some information prior to the May 4 primary.
Their goal wasn’t high-minded and it wasn’t devious. Instead, they were driven by a desire to make educated decisions at the ballot box. Plain, simple, and critical to the proper functioning of our system of government.
There’s a lot of anger about government right now, and polls show that Americans have as little trust in their political leader as at any time in our republic’s history. I think the reasons for that are two-fold: one, some particularly controversial issues, like health care and immigration, are fueling passions; and two, the digital age of media gives those who are mad and unhappy more power than ever. Any observer of government knows that anger is the best tool for galvanizing an audience.
But all’s not bad. The very fact that so many people are taking part in local politics, holding meetings, organizing forums and running for office provides ample evidence that the public is engaged, and that the pendulum is swinging. By November, perhaps, we’ll know which way.