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Let's Rise Above Toxicity in Populist Strategic Plan

November is rapidly approaching, and for the first time in a dozen years, I don’t have a professional stake in the outcome of an election. Maybe it’s the absence of this tie, or maybe it’s the culmination of jaded feelings that build during every campaign season before the boundless possibility of future opportunity resets itself, but this season has felt particularly trivial.

President Joe Biden is calling it the most important election of our lifetime. I haven’t heard that line in two full years since the last time it was the most important election of our lifetime. Federal and statewide candidates called their oppositions’ debate performances from this past week appalling or disgusting. Everyone claimed victory and passed blame.

I’m genuinely curious if this malaise is what happens to everyone who is less engaged in the political process or if it truly is bad this cycle.

One driving aspect of the rhetoric that I think intensifies this trend is both political parties push toward populism. There’s a race to the lowest common denominator of anti-intellectualism that breeds a culture of cliche.

I’m not a populist. My parents aren’t populists. When I graduated with my Ph.D., they gave me a card that read, “We would like to congratulate you on behalf of the establishment.” My father often talks about how governing should be by a small council of the most informed and independent thinkers, free of political constraints.

His idea might sound horrifying to the populist because, though I’ve never explicitly asked, I would assume the council is unelected. It does have roots as far back as to the original democracies with Plato advocating for philosopher kings who can put reason over emotion to make decisions for the masses - with special training at Plato’s own academy of course.

The establishment has its drawbacks as well. Groupthink is a real phenomenon and is much more common than most realize. The ratio between dissenting voices has been measured and usually once you surpass 4:1 then the full group becomes ill-receptive to competing ideas.

Most college departments are now 14:1 or even over 20:1 in political ideology conformity and we’re starting to see the damage it is causing. However, rarely have our city councils shown us such an ability to demonstrate an anti-groupthink ratio either.

This is what makes the current strategic plan input period so intriguing. This is a populist approach. Commissioner Holly Davis often calls this the people’s plan. The question is whether it will prevent groupthink or reveal something more sinister.

My problem with populism is not with the idea - I’m all for a government by the people - but rather with the people. When you are building in-groups, you can have dissent and diversity but what you can’t have is toxicity.

Toxicity is currently perpetuated through power to conform in populism on both ends of the political spectrum albeit in slightly different ways. Democrats demand conformity in political correctness and platform politics. You have to speak the right language like unhoused rather than homeless people and stay in line such as the populist wing getting the rare rebuke of the establishment when they appeared to change their stance on Ukraine before retracting a letter sent to the president earlier this week.

But whereas liberals center on political correctness and platform politics, conservatives focus on people. The love we have for our populist leaders borders on authoritarian allowances of never questioning a single move they make.

What we need is neither. What we need is a culture of respect. We can disagree without causing a toxic situation. We can agree without the threat of straying too far from the platform or the person. I’m not at all excited for November’s election but I’m quite fascinated by this strategic plan input.

Let’s see if we can leave toxicity out of it.


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