When you turn on the TV, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, it’s easy to find examples of people behaving badly. I have been mystified for a long time about the dramatic change in the tone, especially on the national level, where the emphasis seems to be on obstructionism rather than working towards a solution together.  People are always willing to give you a superficial reason, based on race, religion or other convenient labelling factors. I think the problem is a bit deeper than that, and it’s something I’m learning now that I’ve finally become an elected official myself, albeit at a local level.

We have managed to conflate respect for the office someone holds and respect for them personally, their ideas and positions. 

This would be okay in any other day and age. We have long agreed that if we elect someone to high office, we have to give deference to their opinions and viewpoints, because, after all, a majority of our fellow citizens put their faith in them and pulled the lever on election day. Even if we thought they were a bit crazy, we assumed they had enough other people around them acting as advisors and quashing the crazy before it went public.

The Great Evening of the Playing Field

Now we have the internet, where everyone has a voice.  Everyone is potentially a great novelist or the unibomber- and we’re never quite sure how to evaluate the veracity of what we see and read. But society has told us for years that if it’s written down, and it’s not labelled fiction, it’s truth, or as Steven Colbert one said, it has “truthiness” to it.

Entrepreneurs and successful businessmen used to have to work a lifetime to build something. Now we laud the 20 something entrepreneur who has instant success instead, which devalues all the steps that the “old-fashioned” business person went to in order to build their business, brick by brick. It doesn’t seem to matter, at least in the media, that there are as many failures and successes in both these realms- it’s just too much fun to laud the successful and make it all seem easy.

I’ve had ongoing arguments for years with friends who have said things along the lines of “traditional education is no longer relevant, my experience is all that matters” only for some of them to run into a wall later on when a job they want requires a degree, or advanced degree.

Transfer this to the political season this year, and we see the “establishment” candidates who believe in the traditional way of working your way up to the top in politics, versus Mr. Trump, who worked his way up in the business world, and through an ivy-league education as well. Trump seems to upend the “one path to power” rule in politics, and the Establishment isn’t quite sure how to react or respond.

My point here is that people always use certain credentials as proxies for how smart or talented you are, and whether you should be trusted with real power.

What qualifies as credentials and experience worthy of respect and qualification for the job at hand has changed dramatically.

What People Respect:

  1. Hard work and success in business or academia or both.
  2. Good communication skills and likability.
  3. The ability to be organized, set a goal and meet it, in any aspect of life.
  4. Street smarts AND Book smarts.
  5. Experience, as long as you can talk about it and connect it to the present situation at hand, quickly and cogently.
  6. Authenticity. Speaking from the heart and telling people the truth as you see it, even if you are hyperbolic in your assessments, plays better than scripted and tested.
  7. Honesty.
  8. Truth.
  9. Vulnerability mixed with Strength of convictions.
  10. Taking one for the team. We like people who take risks and are willing to give things a try we never would, and we both root for them and console them afterwards. We may not always love the loser, but we respect that they had more guts to give it a go than we did.

What People Don’t Respect:

  1. Acting like a know it all. You can be smart, but not smug.
  2. No one wants a lecture- it brings up too many childhood memories. We know Mom was right, but it doesn’t mean we ever really want to admit it out loud.
  3. Meanness. You can be hard on those who seem like slackers, but don’t pick on the vulnerable who never had a chance. Kids and puppies always get a pass. Anyone over 15 making a mistake that looks like meanness or bullying can become a pariah.
  4. Not Working, however that is defined. It’s the reason stay at home moms and dads have such a hard time when they go back to the workplace. It’s not that we don’t know how hard a job being a parent is- I know four year olds that could out-negotiate people in the State Department- but somehow, the lack of money and doing something that involves investing in the future- in the lives of our kids and our communities, doesn’t have that immediate tangible outcome the wider world seems to value more.
  5. Volunteer work. We give lip-service to respecting volunteer work, and we know how vital it is. But during a debate, my opponent sneered at my community service in a way that truly shocked me, and drove this point home- that not everyone thinks giving back to the community is a proxy for moral and ethical commitment, but simply as a waste of your time.  That was eye opening. Volunteerism is largely undervalued by our politics except when it looks like a photo op.  This annoys me to no end.

How This Plays Out

I’ve heard people high up in party politics not to tell people if you have graduated from an Ivy League college. In most of life, this fact acts as a proxy for people assuming you are smart, or smart enough. It says you were bright and hard working in high school, and stuck with the whole program long enough to earn a degree, and everything that went into that process. However, on TV each morning, I see commercials saying a degree is a degree. That may or may not be true, but I know a lot of alumni associations and brand name schools that will be in serious trouble if their brand for excellence is equivalent with any online school out there. Somehow, we do still buy in that Harvard, Stanford, Yale and Wharton mean something. At least for now.

Likewise, we’ve had a popular culture that gives massive amounts of attention to people who are largely famous for being famous or from famous families- The Kardashians and Paris Hilton come to mind.We’re removing the filters and proxies we’ve traditionally used to qualify someone for a position or job in public life, and instead use mere fame as a metric.  Which brings us back to the rise of Mr. Trump, someone with traditional qualification from education and the business world, jumping in and upsetting Establishment politics.

He is the poster child for someone exploiting our frustrations with the grownups we thought we put in charge- the traditional establishment folks who played things by the traditional pathway to public office, with the possible exception of Fred Gandy, a.k.a. Gopher from the Love Boat and Al Franken.

When I see Mitch McConnell giving the President a hard time and refusing to even talk to him, I see that as not only being disrespectful to Mr. Obama, but to the Office of President. You don’t have to like Barry Obama, Mr. McConnell, but you do have to listen and respect President Obama, just like he needs to respect Senator McConnell. Both of you were elected and entrusted by millions of people with forging a future and making decisions on our behalf, and you need to both act like adults, regardless of what the other one has said about your mother. But as long as our officials are conflating the personal with the office they hold, they end up denigrating the respect the rest of us have traditionally given to high office.

Now, as a result, we’re willing to listen to just about anyone. Common sense versus rhetoric is in demand, and your brand of political tantrum has left the Country distrustful of the system as a whole, no matter who is holding office.  And we wonder why the traditional political parties are in chaos? It’s hard to remain respectful of adults who are acting like children, and I have said, and heard friends say, what they need are a bunch of moms to go down there, ground these guys and put them in time out until they decide they can play nicely with others.

The electorate looks like they have decided to step up and put the warring toddlers in time out. It’s like a Mom who is frustrated after hours of arguing and cajoling her kids saying “Well, then, I guess we’ll just have to wait until your father gets home.  Then you’ll see what happens.” Voters are desperately looking for the adult in the room, and we can’t see to find one.  Then why should we be at all surprised when they support someone like Mr. Trump who looks like that “Take a Stand” dad?

I don’t think he’s the right guy, but I do understand why lots of people think so, and it’s largely because we no longer respect the traditional rules that have shaped our society. Too many people who have followed the rules and end up downsized in their late 50’s without  a lot of prospects are angry and distrustful. It’s an angry ocean of disaffected people, looking for a life ring, and there aren’t a lot of people offering a return to that sense of security we all really want. The difference is some folks think we have to find a new normal, and others still think we can just “fix it” and return to the early 90’s, if not way earlier, to a time when things seemed to be pretty awesome, even if there was an ugly underbelly there as well. (There is no more clear example of this than the recent Bill Cosby scandal. We want the Cosby show values and mystique, without out the philandering on the side)

The difference between the candidates and political parties is that some folks think we have to find a new normal, and others still think we can just “fix it”, Let’s just return to the early 90’s, if not way earlier, to a time when things seemed to be pretty awesome, even if there was an ugly underbelly there as well. (There is no more clear example of this than the recent Bill Cosby scandal. We want the Cosby show values and mystique, without out the philandering on the side) On the other hand, people are struggling with the fact that things are different, and want leadership to take us into a new future, but we still want more security and less disruption.

It’s the allure of Nostalgia versus people willing to take the lead in cutting the brush into a new, but uncertain future. It’s scary, and everyone is looking for someone they can have faith in, someone they feel they can trust.

It’s a tough choice, but we’re going to have to make one in November.