Last night, I received a call from an opinion poll. Aha! I thought. Now is my chance to have an impact on the national race. Those pollsters try to bend the partisan samples to show Obama in the lead, but this is one conservative they’re not going to manipulate. I bet they’ll be shocked to find a Republican in Santa Monica, CA, I chuckled.
How likely was I to vote the in the fall election? the man on the telephone asked. Extremely, I said.
But that was almost the last question to which I knew the answer.
The poll turned out to be a local survey, focused almost entirely on the town and the school district. We have only lived here for eighteen very busy months, and I am only just becoming familiar with local issues. There are no traditional parties here, either, to clarify the issues--almost everyone is a lefty of some stripe, but otherwise there are just various interest groups.
Suddenly, I found myself in the position of the undecided--and uninformed--voter.
I had to rely on a few scraps of knowledge to answer the questions. I know that Santa Monica has great amenities but unaffordable housing. Rent control is a regular feature of life but does little for new residents. Some crazies tried to ban circumcision last year and were stopped by the mayor, who I met later at a Chanukah party.
That’s all I had to go on.
As the pollster asked me to choose my preferred candidates, I wondered what I should do. I resisted the reflex--drilled into me, growing up in ethnic-voting Chicagoland--to listen for the Jewish names. The candidates were not listed by party, but by profession. Should I pick a “public policy professional” over a teacher for school board? Would the teacher be a union stooge? Would the policy wonk be some kind of radical in disguise?
Not knowing what to do, I fell back on a simpler prejudice: support for business owners and police officers, opposition to attorneys and career politicians.
I answered “no” to a ballot question about borrowing a large sum of money to upgrade school infrastructure, relying solely on a general feeling that governments of all kinds are far too indebted nowadays. If Santa Monica is the exception, that message hadn’t gotten through to me.
What do I think of the parking downtown? Good, I guess. How important are jobs as a political issue? Extremely. And the presence of homeless people in public spaces? Only somewhat important, I answered--what was I to say? Was there some local movement to clear out the homeless people? What if I gave the wrong answer, and the city council started arresting harmless hippies on the beach?
Gee whiz, I had no clue what to say.
I was at sea until the final questions, about demographics and political ideology, when I finally had the chance to make my stand, telling the pollster I am “very conservative.” But as emphatic as I tried to sound, it felt rather anti-climactic. If there was any sense in my answers, someone else would have to divine what I had meant. I sure couldn’t figure it out. More jobs, lower taxes, keep the place tidy--what else was I supposed to want?
I imagine that for many outside the 24-hour media, national politics can be as much a mystery as local politics in a new town are to me. Parties make the choices simpler for us--we complain about partisanship, but it has its value. Those who haven’t made up their minds yet are paying too little attention, or too much.
In the end, many will go with their gut instincts, however odd or messy. That’s how the country’s future will be decided.
Photo credit: Terry Chay