Dear diary, Do people like me have the courage for a new kind of politics?

Dear Diary,

It’s 9 p.m., and I just got home from a town hall meeting convened by the two men and one woman who represent my district in the Minnesota State Legislature. Almost skipped the meeting for a much needed workout at the gym, but if my state legislators are making an effort at dialogue, it’s my duty to show up, right? Plus, I was curious.

The conversation was held in the octagon-shaped chapel of a local college – state legislators lined up in the middle facing mostly-gray haired constituents in rings of pews. Although the first legislator to speak encouraged us to use the space for dialogue with each other as much as with our elected officials, it didn’t take long – approximately 75 seconds – before the blaming/accusing/finger-pointing started. One of the very first “questions? was about property taxes and why You [legislators] keep raising them. This was followed quickly with a question about You People [legislators] raising the gas tax – don’t you know the price of fuel is skyrocketing? And why are You letting higher education tuition go up? And what about my property taxes?

There were a few words of thanks for past support of clean energy initiatives, and a legitimate question or two, but I could see what was going on: the folks who were speaking up thought they had elected These People to Fix Things. And They either weren’t Fixing Things, or They Weren’t Fixing the Right Things, or maybe They were Fixing Things, but They were spending too much of Our money doing it.

I composed comments in my head that went something like this:

You People [legislators] have proven yourselves to be intelligent, capable, caring people with areas of expertise. Those qualifications may contribute to Our confusion about Your role, and to Our expectation that You go beyond representing us in a political and lawmaking process to that of experts who fix healthcare or a loss of jobs. In our district and in Minnesota, we have common challenges – for example, the deteriorating roads and inadequate transit system the gas tax is supposed to help address – and will need to work on them together to make real change. [to the point] There are lots of smart people and good ideas in this room, and people obviously care – about something - or they wouldn’t be here. How do You [legislators] plan to work with other citizens to solve our problems together? And for the rest of us, how do WE want to work together?

I rehearsed this in my head, and kept telling myself to raise my hand. And didn’t.

I was tired (why is sitting on your bum all day so exhausting?). And I dread speaking in front of a large group of people. But more than that, I feel unconfident about this idea of people as partners with elected officials, even though I believe in it intellectually and philosophically. We have a presidential candidate talking about partnership, but it’s a deviation from the status quo and not something I can easily envision. Will it really work? How hard will it be? What kind of demands would a partnership place on me, and on my time? Was there anyone else in the audience thinking like I am?

So diary, do you think people like me can muster the courage for a different kind of politics?

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs