Flying back from my uncle’s wedding in Oregon, I was sitting next to a towering 70-year-old former school teacher and superintendent whom I’ll call Mr. Montana. He mostly ignored me while I read my book during the first half of the flight.
The second half was a whole other story as we struck up a conversation that turned immediately political. He came across as a libertarian. Perhaps a Reagan democrat. Clearly suspicious of government in general and seriously pissed about high property taxes in Montana. He viewed his new governor and senator as untried.
“Testor? He’s untested. Talks a good game, but all I see is rhetoric.”
Not so curiously, this was his main criticism of Barack Obama. A young guy who clearly had a lot on the ball, but what has he actually done? There is clearly a communications problem when after nearly a year and a half of campaigning, an intelligent and politically aware citizen doesn’t know Obama’s background. As I shared with him some of my knowledge of Barack’s record, both in Illinois and the US Senate, he came to a grudging acceptance of my candidate’s bonafides.
My new friend wasn’t voting for Hillary or McCain and couldn’t get excited about Obama. Clearly some work left to do on educating the American voter on who Barack is and what he stands for. I would love to see his campaign invest a couple hundred grand of their war chest in a short documentary detailing his primary campaign while weaving in the stories many of us know from his two books and what he has done in Washington DC.
This is a no-brainer.
Put it on YouTube. Offer it to the marketplace for air. Barack would have a huge audience for that film, hungering to know who is and why he should be president.
As Mr. Montana clearly showed with his willingness to engage in debate with a man half his age and his political mirror-image, there are hearts and minds waiting to be won if we take the time to understand.
As we spoke over the next hour, I understood that he was really no different from me politically. His ideas were progressive, but his framing was conservative. He lambasted “unions” but was really talking about union leaders who had become corrupt and made his life hell when trying to administer a school district where some teachers needed to be trained or let go. He actually believed in the ideas of unions and acknowledged the huge debt America had to the labor movement. He was someone who had taught for 50 years and never read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, though he spoke eloquently to its precepts on many subjects.
This led me to believe that we were both Americans, speaking English, yet talking two different dialects. It only took a short while for our conversation to become a Rosetta Stone, once both had laid aside the need to “win” our discussion. It was almost a mutual armistice, probably because we were on a plane. You can only get so passionate in that setting. The automatic politeness facilitated a conversation that led to mutual understanding. We cracked the code of bridging the gaps in the silent majority.
I think I asked him at one point about social services when he had a particularly sharp comment for “welfare” recipients and teaching someone to fish. I said, “Yeah, but we never taught them how to fish, we just gave them fewer fishes for a shorter period of time.”
He allowed that was true, but didn’t want government in the business of taking care of people beyond things like social security for retirement and national health care. I offered the idea that if we fully funded the non-profit sector, then government wouldn’t be providing the services best distributed at the local level. They would simply be setting a standard and funding the efforts in whatever way maximises effectiveness. The non-profit sector has been very good at distributing social services at a fraction of the cost of government.
Likewise, a robust Fourth Sector (For Profit, For Good companies) with the right funding could quickly pursue the technology we need to transition to clean energy. Subsidising Oil and AgriBusiness is not a good return on investment. Subsidizing clean energy entrepreneurs and on-profit efforts provides a huge return on investment. Slimming down the federal government, increasing state and local budgets and taking a more humble stance in the world all seemed doable by spending the money we already spend more effectively. In fact, by doing things more efficiently and effectively, we would be able to alleviate the individual’s tax burden in the long run.
It all seemed like common sense to me, but no one had put it in that way to Mr. Montana. Even now, the Rosetta Stone is fading, in terms of just how to position certain debates to maximum effect.