Political Hot Dog-Making and How to Move Society Towards Ethical and Civil Discourse (Part 1 of 2)

Political Hot Dog-Making and How to Move Society Towards Ethical and Civil Discourse

“If government were a product, selling it would be illegal.”
P.J. O’Rourke

Politics 101: How Hot Dogs are Made

About 10 years ago, I made the mistake of watching a video clip about how hot dogs are made. It wasn’t pretty. Since that day, I’ve only eaten hot dogs when under duress. The political process, on the other hand, makes hot-dog processing look wholesome and tasty. But, like it or not, politics as we know it is unlikely to change anytime soon, so we might as well develop strategies on how to play nice with others when it comes to this potentially explosive topic.

Like religion, many of us get so attached to, or repelled by, a person or political party that all reason goes out the window, and it can be difficult to engage in open, honest discussions. We lose sight of more important goals because we’re too busy trying to protect our team and win the argument, even when we don’t agree with half of what our team stands for. Independent thinking gets lost in the process. Rather than throw food or insults at family and friends whenever the topic of politics rears its ugly head, here’s my strategy on how to keep cool—no matter what kind of pink-slime political horrors I inadvertently encounter.

My rose-colored political glasses enable me to view politics in the following simplistic way: Politicians have a large pot of money, collected via taxes from citizens and businesses, to manage our country. Each politician has an opinion on how that money should be divided and spent. Similarly, politicians have at their disposal a mind-bogglingly complex set of laws and incentives that they use to maintain a peaceful society and a semi-free market. Some politicians feel that the government needs more money, more regulations, and more government programs to effectively run the country; other politicians feel that government should have less money, fewer regulations, and fewer government programs; the rest fall somewhere in between.

The issues that politicians tackle can be extremely complex. Most issues are not black and white but rather many shades of grey. There are significant, legitimate differences of opinion about which programs should or should not exist. Politicians use a variety of means to push their agendas. The means can be sleazy, virtuous, or somewhere in between.

The money, time, and resources spent on one issue can impact the ability to effectively address other issues. Given the complex regulatory framework that we have created for such things as taxes, healthcare, and environmental issues, it’s not easy for anyone to be well informed on more than a few key issues. This means that politicians must rely on “experts” to provide them with sound advice based on available data—a mix of scientific, socioeconomic, and political—that provide a sense of what science suggests they should do and the political fallout they would suffer if they choose to do it. Some of the expert advice is based on solid, objective data; some is based on flimsy or biased data; and some is completely subjective.

Add to the mix public opinion polls, advocacy groups, lobbyists, current events, and pressure from other politicians to steer a given politician in one direction or the other. Each politician weighs the pros and cons, and then makes the final call on how he or she will vote. In some cases, the politician decides not to show up to vote at all.

Along the way, the full spectrum of human character traits will surface, and the media uses the most sensational stories to paint someone as good or bad. Each media outlet has its own biases, and most choose to focus on the bad stuff, regardless of bias. This translates to public character assassinations in print, on the traditional airwaves, or online.

Rather than offer solutions, some politicians focus their attention on trashing their opponent. Close to election time, things start to get really ugly, and the personal attacks are well below the belt. The press loves this, and apparently the public does too. We’re left with a cynical sense that all politicians are scum.

In the end, we may feel that we’re faced with the option of voting for either “bad” or “worse.” When our preferred candidate has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning in a primary election, we may choose not to “throw away our vote” and instead vote for someone whom we don’t really like because that person has a better chance of winning against the opposing party candidates, some of whom we may despise. Alternatively, we may choose to “throw away our vote” in a primary election because we want our vote to be aligned with our core values, or we really detest the other candidates. In the final election, we may decide to adopt a mindless political robot approach and simply check the box for “democrat” or “republican” across the board without the faintest idea about the candidates or issues.

Finally, it’s time to vote. After a day of drama and speculation, the winners are announced. The loser makes a concession speech, the winners celebrate, and there is music and dancing in the streets. After the dust settles, and it becomes clear that it’s just going to be business as usual in Washington, D.C., we may be left with a feeling that the system is broken and that all politicians are corrupt, unethical, self-absorbed manipulators of public opinion, no matter what side of the fence they’re on.

Rather than get mired in the hot dog-making process we call “politics,” there’s another approach to take. Ignore it. Go on a “media fast”. Don’t waste your limited free time reading about political squabbling and scandals. If you are passionate about certain issues, great! Get involved at a local, state, or national level, and help influence change. But, if following the negative political saga just inspires you to be angry, depressed, or fearful, without taking any positive action, then it might be best to ignore politics and focus on keeping your own house and relationships clean and healthy. That’s a decision that I consciously made about 6 years ago and I’ve been happily residing in the “media fast” camp ever since.

Despite my media fast, I do break it for a narrow window around election time. I research candidates and issues, discuss them with other people, and submit my vote. It takes me about three weeks to do this. After that, my work is finished. I put my blinders back on and focus on the priorities that I have set for that year. I’ve made the choice to be a semi-informed voter at the time of the election, cast my vote, and then move on to what I consider to be my highest priorities in life. For me, politics is very far down the list.

Don’t get me wrong, I regularly read books and articles that support my career and personal growth, and I research other topics of interest during my media fast, but it is nearly always for a specific purpose. When I do this, I tend to go deep, with a focus on primary sources – aka stuff that is typically jargon-filled, painfully dry, and loaded with data and quantitative analyses. These papers are usually free of the typical headlines we see that are designed to manipulate our emotions … the stuff marketing copywriters come up with that play on emotions such as fear and are designed to be irresistible for their target audience. If anything, primary source articles have titles that elicit the opposite effect, with fear coming in the form of “fear of having to read that technical paper.” Fortunately, these days we also have options to watch on-line lectures and conferences that feature the authors of primary source articles. These forums are particularly useful when there are panels that include multiple speakers and perspectives. More on that topic in next week’s post.

My Media Break-Fast for 2020

On September 29th, 2020, I reluctantly climbed out of my cave to see what is going on in the world of politics … starting with the first Presidential debate. Wow. Straight into the fire with that decision. Let’s just say that I was feeling pretty darn good about my choice to be on a media fast after watching that car wreck of a spectacle.

After the “debate” finally ended, I turned off the computer and sat down for a few minutes in silence. I was actually feeling a bit stunned. The main question I found myself asking was “How did things get so bad in terms of engaging in ethical, civil discourse?” I decided to dive a bit deeper into that topic over the past few weeks and that will be the subject for Part 2 of this blog post: my two cents on how we got to where we are today and how we might dig ourselves out of this hole to arrive at a place where ethical, civil arguments become the norm.

Author: Mark Aspelin

Mark Aspelin is a freelance nature, health, and travel writer who helps people become more engaged in biodiversity conservation and live a lifestyle that optimizes physical and mental health. Mark has worked as a conservation biologist, healthcare project manager, certified personal trainer, and he’s the author of over 50 blog posts and articles and two highly rated books: “Profitable Conservation: Business Strategies That Boost Your Bottom Line, Protect Wildlife, and Conserve Biodiversity" and "How to Fail at Life: Lessons for the Next Generation". He has a B.S. in Biology from the University of Notre Dame, M.S. in Biology from Creighton University, and MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. Mark has worked with a wide variety of organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, The Coca-Cola Company, Intel Corporation, Molina Healthcare, United HealthGroup, and The International Crane Foundation, and he is a volunteer Ambassador and Docent-in-training at the ABQ BioPark. His articles and interviews have been featured by GreenBiz, Inside EPA, Perceptive Travel, and the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation’s Half-Earth Project. Mark is also an avid traveler who has visited over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States and he lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: