If I have one flaw - outside of excessive drinking, slovenly dress, laziness, disrespect for authority, obscene vocabulary and tendency to loud belching - it is that I give people credit for being much smarter than they really are. I once worked in an environment with many bright bulbs and it was during this point I concluded it was not good to be the smartest person in a room full of dummies. I would rather be the dummy surrounded by smart people, with the design that some of their smarts might rub off on me. But once every four years I am reminded that my high minded hope for other people’s brain power is seriously misplaced as we approach the United States’ most irrational day, the first Tuesday in November.
As usual the more extreme pundits both Republican and Democrat will frame this as “the most important election of our time.” People will fall for it. Some will make Trump out to be an outright threat to our democracy. Some will say a vote for Biden is a vote for a man whose mental capacities are more limited than that of a houseplant. When President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke 101 years ago his secretary and his wife took over the presidency from behind closed doors. After Wilson’s death an autopsy revealed that he likely suffered “disorders of emotion, impaired impulse control, and defective judgment.” The way I see it, that could describe either candidate in the upcoming contest.
In truth the presidential election is the least important contest you are likely ever to judge. The real contest happened on Tuesday of this week when many, but not all, cities and towns in Alabama held their municipal elections. Local officials along with legislators (who come up for re-election in 2022) are the ones you really ought to watch. But chances are many of the people reading this do not even know who represents them in the legislature or their local city council.
I’ve seen all manner of bad leadership at the local level, all the more because my job for the last 16 years has been to watch leadership at the local level. In my personal Hall of Fame of bad leaders are included: a mayor who once buried toxic waste in a poor, minority neighborhood and when caught paved over the site in an effort to keep it from being dug up and tested. Also a mayor who tried to use public funds to build a farmer’s market, named after him, on land owned, not by the town, but on the right of way of a CSX railroad. More recently I had to threaten legal action against a mayor who directed his city clerk not to let me have a copy of the city budget.
It is much easier, especially in smaller towns, for local leaders to behave badly, even criminally, without repercussions than it is for those in Washington D.C. precisely because fewer people see what is going on. They say that sunshine is the best disinfectant against corruption. That only works if people are willing to turn their heads and watch what goes on in plain view. Americans are hardwired to aim their scorn for wrongdoers at the top. If we are ever going to have more effective government then we have to pay more attention to the Single A baseball of politics: city councils, county commissions, and local school boards. These are the politicians you are most likely to bump into in the grocery stores and high school sports games.
We are not going to change people’s behavior overnight. But you can start by getting to know more about your elected leaders at the local level. Go to a city council or county commission meeting once in awhile, and watch. Let them see you watching. Don’t get me wrong, a great many local officials are good people who want to do the right thing. But some are not and you are better off knowing who they are than worrying yourself about who is sitting in the Oval Office.