Your View is a recurring series of opinion pieces from members of The Evergrey community. To share your ideas, goals, and work about Seattle with the community in a Your View piece, please submit it to [email protected].
As election season ramps up again, I find myself wondering more than ever before: How should I research the candidates?
This year, while facilitating a conversation among people who voted for Clinton and Trump, I’ve noticed that, even among people who’ve committed time to discussing different political worldviews, life gets in the way. Most can’t find the time to research every issue, or to talk it through—and many feel guilty or inadequate as a result. But given the unavoidable demands of our jobs and families, I wonder if this guilt is, in fact, a clue.
What if the way we’ve come to frame our responsibility as citizens— to be knowledgeable, detail-oriented voters— is in fact unrealistic and unsustainable?
The armchair politician paradox
I’d once thought that developing more practical knowledge would make voting easier. But it turns out the more I learn, the less I seem to know.
Take, for example, the question of how much affordable housing to require in Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability upzones, where city planners are allowing taller buildings in exchange for requiring developers to pitch in on affordable housing. Are we risking over-pricing the new requirement? Are we asking too little?
Despite five years of working in affordable housing development and pretty decent spreadsheet skills, I’m less willing than ever before to chime in with an informed opinion. With variable land costs, hiring rates, construction costs, investment returns, demand curves… I’d argue that outcomes are impossible to model.
There’s pressure to become armchair politicians during election season – to become pundits about problems and solutions mainly because we think that’s what we’re supposed to do. As candidates debate specific solutions, we debate alongside them.
This is a problem.
To expect all voters to develop confident opinions on policy direction is not only unrealistic, but also profoundly disrespectful to policy scholars who’ve devoted generations of careers to understanding the intended and unintended consequences of crafted solutions. We vote as volunteers, not as professionals.
So I wonder: Does the wisdom of the crowd really work best when it hires political leaders based on policy ideas? Or is there another way we could be evaluating our candidates?
Re-evaluating how we vote
Seattle is changing fast and with more complexity. It feels impossible to definitively say that one candidate, based on their policy positions, has all the answers.
So what if we looked for candidates who take a more experimental approach to their jobs? Those who will say, “I don’t 100 percent know where the next four years will take us. I think it would be good to try X right now, but am totally willing to consider that’s wrong. Here’s how we can evaluate X with an open mind, and here are some backup ideas if we’re wrong about X.”
(I explain here why this is a more valuable way to vote by using an analogy that compares voters and elected officials to the act of driving a car.)
I believe that selecting leaders for humility, curiosity, and open-mindedness—in other words, for agility in learning from mistakes—is something that voters would naturally be good at. These are leadership qualities many of us already look for in our own organizations. Why not in our political leaders?.
To be clear, I don’t necessarily think that humility is more important than the leadership traits we already discuss in politics, such as the ability to galvanize support or to make tough decisions. But without constructively asking candidates to talk about their experience in being confident yet wrong, we’re missing some critical questions in the hiring process.
If we spent more time in election cycles talking about how to be wrong, and not only how to be right, could we reach our objectives more smoothly?
How to define the success of an elected official
All Seattleites define the success of our city in different ways – and your answer may vary from mine.
I think the success of our city is about having the power to achieve a vision, a community to share the experience with, and the wisdom to slow down when you’re doing enough. Success isn’t necessarily about always having more or doing more. It’s about having enough, doing enough, and knowing better. And so, the key objective changes as we move through life.
For example, sometimes we’re broke and need to focus on making money. Sometimes we’re broken and need to heal a past trauma. We can focus on a few things, but we can’t focus on everything. And often, what we need represents a shift from what we’ve been doing out of habit.
We have many issues that beg to be addressed, but like unraveling a tangled knot, it helps to keep coming back to one that might help make the other knots easier to get to. Speaking for myself, just as an example: Right now, I think we’re at a point in time that calls us to deeply reckon with our history of racial exploitation and injustice. Like a childhood trauma, moving on will be tough, and feeling whole nearly impossible, without investing in this challenging and disorienting work.
And so, even though urban development dynamics is my “pet issue,” I’ve decided this election cycle to focus instead on finding out who is likeliest to bring an awareness of racial reckoning and healing to every decision.
So does that mean I’ll become a single-issue voter? No.
I’m not interested in certainty about how we might achieve something we haven’t yet achieved; I don’t think certainty is realistic. Instead, I want a leader with enough focus to keep this goal on the itinerary in a highly distracting world.
What matters in a political leader
It remains important to talk about the things needed for success on Day 1. But as the world becomes ever more complex, we need to ask other important questions.
Below are just a few ideas of questions I think we should be asking candidates during this election:
How will you learn?
- What’s your practice for reality-testing and challenging your beliefs?
- What are your parameters, once a light bulb goes off, for acknowledging unintended consequences?
- Once unintended consequences are apparent, what are your procedures for correcting course?
- What experience do you have in bringing crewmates along in a course re-direction, while maintaining morale?
How will you edit?
- What single piece of wisdom do you hope we’ll gain collectively as a city in the next four years?
- What single thing holds us back as a city from being more whole?
These questions aren’t just for the candidates—I think they’ll also to help us think as voters. If voting knowledgeably on all the important issues is how we define responsible citizenship, it seems that we’ll need to leave a lot of busy, hard-working citizens out of that definition. As long as we remain part-time volunteer voters, it’s worth asking: Is saner politics possible?
Are you interested in getting to know candidates based on how they learn and edit instead of solely evaluating their policy platforms? Us too! That’s why we’re inviting you to join our experimental Evergrey election board.
If you’re a Seattle voter who wants to ask our mayoral and city council candidates the kinds of questions that Bo posed above, apply to join our board by Monday, Oct. 9. We’ll choose a handful of Seattleites, talk through what kinds of questions they’d like to ask candidates, and arrange an intimate get together with the candidates for a group Q&A discussion. And then, of course, we’ll share out what we learned with our Evergrey community.
Not a political wonk? Not a problem. We’ll be talking about how people work to get good things done, not how they evaluate policy details.
What’ll the time commitment be? We’d say no more than a total of four hours between now and Election Day on Nov. 7.
Other questions? Email us at [email protected].