We have entered the high season of political bullshit. In what has become a grand tradition in big media states like California, huge sums of money pour in from throughout the country. That’s especially true on the Central Coast, since several of only a handful of competitive legislative and Congressional seats across the state are here.
This money fuels a never-ending loop of campaign ads and mailers, directly targeting the morality and the character of candidates, as campaigns have given up on the notion that citizens should expect elected leaders to advocate and follow through on a platform of policies. Instead, we are engaged in a contest over our tribal loyalties and social identities. A battle, not so much over our hearts and minds, but over our fears.
I’m not suggesting that elections aren’t about moral challenges, they absolutely are, but if we use elections only to judge the private morality of candidates, we are largely missing the point.
Consider the state Assembly race, pitting Democrat Dawn Ortiz-Legg against Republican Jordan Cunningham. Take them out of this context, and you have two decent human beings who are committed to pubic service. But in the last stretch of the campaign, Cunningham wants you to believe that Ortiz-Legg bathes in the blood of U.S. soldiers and hates our country, despite that fact that she is married to a Vietnam vet. And as a leader of the anti-war group Code Pink, Ortiz-Legg worked with Gold Star Families for Peace and other veterans groups to honor and serve our soldiers during the Iraq War, the greatest foreign policy disaster in U.S. history.
Unlike Cunningham, Dawn supports funding housing and social services for vets. It is relevant that she was right about that policy decision, and Jordan is on the wrong side of history, to the extent that he gave it as much thought as his party’s presidential nominee.
What is less relevant is that Jordan is a criminal defense attorney who’s worked for some really horrible people. The Democratic Party seems to have made this the centerpiece of its attempt to defeat him, but most of us recognize that even horrible people need attorneys in a free society. Yes, the criminal justice system on which attorneys can thrive as parasites is corrupt, but then make our prison-industrial complex the issue, not the scary people Jordan defends.
Things get even weirder when we turn to the 24th Congressional District election. Republican candidate and nice person Justin Fareed is accusing Democrat Salud Carbajal of being a tax cheat and whore who is “out for himself” despite the fact that Carbajal did serve his country (unlike young Fareed), and as a Santa Barbara County supervisor, oversaw the county’s largest reserves and highest bond ratings. Carbajal’s tax policy is absolutely fair game, but the fact that he successfully paid off some property liens after his family recovered from financial hardship is not.
What is not a legitimate tactic on Carbajal’s part is casually linking Fareed’s face to any part of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. Yes, it’s troubling that Fareed has endorsed a lying, misogynist, racist, free-riding stain on humanity for president of the United States. But, to be fair, so have a lot of other people, and we voters deserve to know what policy preferences these two men actually share.
It is dishonest to suggest that Fareed is as repugnant a human being as Donald Trump. It is more likely that Fareed is a petroleum industry experiment (that’s where most of his funding comes from) to create the perfectly loyal generic candidate, by combining the DNA of Sylvester Stallone and Marco Rubio. That’s my theory after watching his ads.
Meanwhile, we have genuine moral challenges that require hard choices. There are plenty of real dilemmas to address this campaign season. In terms of total job growth, San Luis Obispo County has recovered from the Great Recession even better than California or the U.S. as a whole, and green energy and building, design, and construction sectors have grown 20 percent from 2010 to 2014, according to BW Research. However, our agricultural and tourism-driven economy has contributed to a “low-wage recovery” and created a massive jobs-housing mismatch.
While the relatively few Tier 1 careers (attorneys, physicians, scientists) and wealthy retirees are driving the housing market, most employees in the county are earning wages below state averages. As a result, even high-tech manufacturing and other high-wage employers have trouble filling positions because of the scarcity of housing at entry-level wages. We have a moral obligation to plan responsibly, to reduce economic inequalities, and to incorporate a long-term housing policy as part of a broader environmental policy that also addresses our water crisis. It looks as though we will have to wait until after the elections to get serious, but I’m putting on my boots and doing my best.
Michael Latner is a political science professor and Master of Public Policy Program director at Cal Poly. He contributes to Rhetoric & Reason, an opinion column about local politics and the issues affecting the Central Coast, in rotation with Al Fonzi, chairman of the Republican Party of SLO County. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.