Op-ed: We get what we deserve

Berkeley voters overwhelmingly support reducing the influence of money in politics. We also aspire to a political system marked by civil discourse focused on real policy differences. Everyone seems unhappy with the role of money and the tone of the discourse in this campaign, both nationally and locally. So how did we get here and why do candidates feel that negativity is a necessary element of campaigns? My argument is that Berkeley voters, just like voters in the country as a whole, get what they deserve.

Have you ever asked yourself why money plays such a big role in politics? The answer is simple: It works. Political ads and mailers work because people are influenced by them. And they are influenced by them because voters are poorly informed. For democracy to function well, voters have to pay attention and be well informed on an ongoing basis. Our founding fathers knew this. John Adams was adamant that our new democracy would only function if the electorate was well informed, and paid attention to politics. For this reason, he was a strong proponent of public education.

I grew up in Norway and we have a very different attitude towards political discourse. I love discussing politics, especially with people I disagree with. Why? Because I can learn something from them. They challenge my own positions and force me to reconsider. And they invariably reveal something about themselves. Most often, I end up respecting the person who was willing to express and defend her points of view, and find a new friend.

In Berkeley, it is not enough to parachute in for a few weeks around election time, go to some house parties, listen to nice speeches and make a snap decision. How do you know that what you are being told is true? The vast majority of Berkeley voters don’t pay much attention to local politics. . We are focused on influencing national and even global policies – not realizing that real change takes place in local communities, where we have the most influence, and where our personal actions – how we treat each other, and whether we take the time to volunteer or participate – can make the biggest difference.

Some of our politicians are very well aware of this “disparity of focus.” They know the vast majority of voters don’t follow local politics – or pay attention to the votes and positions their elected officials have taken. So whatever their tune might be on the dais, they know exactly what Berkeley voters want to hear at election time, and they say it, whether or not it reflects their actual beliefs, positions or votes.   That is why many voters are left wondering: what’s the difference between one candidate and another? They all sing the same tune at election time. They all claim to be “progressives” who care about displacement, the environment and the homeless. That election rhetoric, however, masks very significant differences in policy positions and records on the Council, on Boards and in the community.

We also like to believe that all our elected officials are good, honest people who represent the community, and no one else. We are so smart and discerning, we would never elect someone with less than stellar ethics, right? We are therefore inherently skeptical of anyone who would point out the flaws – or transgressions — of our elected officials or candidates.

As a result, local candidates are often left with no choice. Stay positive and nice and sound just like the other candidate (who is singing the required song, whether or not he believes the lyrics), with no chance to break through to voters and point out real differences. Or, point out the actual policy differences, voting records and funders/supporters of the opposing candidate, and be branded a “negative campaigner.”

Regardless of whether your candidate in this election wins or loses, I implore you to pay attention to what goes on locally, well after the election. Remember to “think globally, act locally.” Let’s roll up our sleeves and get involved, participate, and make a difference — right here in Berkeley. And please engage in real discourse with your neighbors, especially those who have a yard sign for someone you did not support. You just might make a new friend! If we can do better in Berkeley by being more engaged locally, there’s hope for positive change everywhere.

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Eric Bjerkholt is a longtime North Berkeley resident and a recently naturalized U.S. citizen. He is married to Sophie Hahn who is running for City Council in Berkeley’s District 5.