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A Lesson From a Town Hall Meeting

by Dan Burns on July 26, 2011

Yesterday evening, I attended a town hall meeting, featuring “my” Minnesota state legislators, Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton), and Sen. Dave Brown (R-Becker).  I wasn’t there to hear about their policy positions, with which I’m already distressingly familiar. Rather, I wanted to see for myself, whether there was any hint of political calculation in either’s demeanor, any sense of “I’m not really being 100% honest, here, because that’s what we politicians do,” as they took questions and detailed their legislative “accomplishments” with becomingly modest restraint.

There was no such sense. Nary a sudden loss of eye contact at a key moment, a telltale gesture or shift in body language, or a verbal giveaway along the lines of Bill Clinton’s “that woman” phrase, was to be noted, that would indicate that they were being anything other than entirely frank and open.  (Regarding the latter, I’m referencing the use of “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” as opposed to “I…Monica Lewinsky.”  Had he been telling it like it was, he wouldn’t have felt the need to avoid giving voice to his ex-lover’s very name;  so say the experts, anyway.  I know, something on that scale was way too much to expect, in this context.  That’s just the example that came to mind.)  Moreover – and I want to emphasize this – neither Erickson or Brown ever came across, even for a millisecond, as the sort of obsessed, ranting “haters” that dominate conservatism at the national level.

More below the fold.
They don’t come across that way, because that’s not how they are.  Both honestly, sincerely believe, that supporting a conservative policy agenda (including, I learned, a constitutional amendment, planned for the 2012 ballot, to require a two-thirds majority vote, in both houses, to authorize any state tax increases) is equivalent to absolutely doing the right thing, for all of their constituents – indeed, for all Minnesotans.  They’re wildly misguided, yes, and reality challenged, yes again, but it’s certainly not, in their minds, about trying to further enrich the privileged, or short schools to the point where kids will stay dumb enough to vote Republican when they’re old enough.

And, truth be told, that’s what makes electoral politics, in situations like this, more uncertain and complex, than they might otherwise seem.  It’s easy to go after a freak like Mike Parry;  just attack his public persona and his “tweets.” With the likes of Brown and Erickson, claiming that they’re radical right fanatics (even though their agendas bear out, in large part, that they are) isn’t going to work, because anyone who meets them will tell you (and, presumably, their own friends and relatives) that there’s nothing “radical” or “fanatic” about them.

I gotta say, figuring that out (I mean, I knew it before, in a detached, intellectual way, but not really) made the dreary hour that I spent in the community room at the local library, mostly in the company of sexagenarian (at least) life-long conservatives, well worth it.  

Tony Sterle July 26, 2011 at 10:50 pm

A lot.

Judeling July 26, 2011 at 11:45 pm

What most people think politicians get into it to do what they think is right. What is more most of them are not particularly stupid. The problem we confront is that these sincerely held beliefs, articulately conveyed do to some extent resonate across the broader public. That these beliefs developed from Myth rather then reality makes them no less powerful. Indeed to a large extent it makes them more powerful because we actually think in symbols and iconic images that translate well to our visual information pathways.

Until we begin to invoke the contrary mythic images we will continue to struggle. The “Job creators” are not a bunch of people with an axe and a mule carving out a life in the wilderness. But that is the image implied. It connects directly to the myth of America. There does exist the equally compelling American myth of people banding together to fight off injustice of the king or cattle baron or those who would use our ideals against us. We absolutely must begin to weave those iconic images into our narrative just so we can begin to debate reality.

dan.burns July 27, 2011 at 12:29 am

is an interesting take.  I’ve generally associated the  (ab)use of mythic imagery, with warmongering.  But I can see, how it seems to be being used, politically, by the right, across the board.

Judeling July 27, 2011 at 12:58 am

allows you to skip all the dirty little details. Indeed invoking the mythic nature of war is the most apparent use. It allows you to forget that war justified or not, is organized systematic murder.

We need to isolate the mythic underpinnings of the conservative narrative. While we do that we need to remember that the reason their narrative works is that they believe the myth. It is not the case anymore that the majority of the conservative are countering reality with myth, but that they inhabit the myth so profoundly that it is their reality. Facts mean nothing at that point and are excused as the exception that proves the rule. So the events in Norway are merely proof that Islam is to blame.

You cannot counter myth with reality at that level. You have to offer a competing myth. Once you have Iconic images opposed to each other then reality has a chance to tilt the balance.

Nate_F July 27, 2011 at 12:31 am

Dan – I hope you were able to let these legislators know they have constituents who prefer different policies and who think differently. Many of these legislators rarely meet face to face with people who disagree with them. Sadly, many of them are not able to listen to opposing points of view and take in anything if they do.

Well-meaning politicians who promote evil and hateful policies are not nice people. I’ve heard a few things Sondra Erickson has had to say about gay and lesbian people and they were hateful, hurtful, things.

If people in the grips of ideological lock-down were able to hear and engage their brains at the same time, they might get the message. Sadly, their religion teaches them how to shut out all opposing points of view. There is little hope for them unless someone close to them (a child, close friend) can break through the barrier.

AO July 27, 2011 at 12:57 am

I’ll applaud Dan for keeping an open mind despite some preconceived notions.  Minnesota seems to be particularly good at turning out politicians of either party who are driven by their ideas and principles more than their own personal gain.  

I would hope Nate F would also take the time to listen to a politician from the other side of the spectrum in a setting like this, even if he doesn’t get 1-on-1 time.  Sometimes it takes listening to someone and looking them in the face to realize that the term “evil” should be reserved for someone like the terrorist in Norway.

ericf July 27, 2011 at 1:00 am

My wife knows Erickson, and says essentially the same thing, that’s she’s a nice person. However, the niceness is only if you’re not gay.

But I get the point. They sincerely believe these things, reality-disconnected as they may be. It goes a long way to explaining why Wall Street’s entreaties aren’t moving congressional Republicans to avoid default. They sincerely believe default would be  good thing.

Judeling July 27, 2011 at 1:04 am

will be taken as to strong a word. But it is the everyday unthinking adherence to ideology that is truly evil. We tend to think of the evil of madmen when it is the going along that is the basis of the evil in the world.

Grace Kelly July 27, 2011 at 2:30 am

Time and time again, we have real life stories of serial killers being the nicest people. Somehow, maybe from the movies, we have the idea that the bad guys will give us visual clues. No, the hard part is that the ideas are evil, very cruel. And we can have the nicest people do those evil acts.

The questions that I would like to know is do these representatives vote individually and stand up for what they believe even against their party. I already know the answer is “no.” These are followers, very amiable followers.

Still that means there is a chance that people like Dan can persuade them. But then they would have to have the courage to stand up. I expect they would say, “You know I think you are right but I have to vote with my party.”

Remember the social science experiment where people gave what they thought were possible lethal doses of voltage to a person just because someone told them to do it.

Nice people doing what they are told to do.

Truly how many people can and do go against the norms of their social group. You know I have and you know how rare that is. What I do know that even acting as one, I have set an example and changed whole groups.

The problem with conservative social groups is all of the different voices have left. We as progressives no longer try to persuade the opposition. I will bet that these very nice people have not even heard or read our point of view.

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