Lessons from The West Wing #1

While the characters of President Bartlett and press secretary C.J. Cregg) said this in The West Wing, (and it has been used extensively in speeches by Aaron Sorkin the show’s screenwriter) it was actually taken from a quote of a real US President – Harry Truman.

 

Recently I was having dinner with my nephew who is completing a Master’s degree in Politics, and naturally the discussion did turn to politics.  His view was that even though the majority (yes over 50%) of people voted for the New Zealand National Party in the last election they were wrong in doing so.  The Labour Party only secured around 28% of the vote.  My proposition and then question to my nephew was simple. The proposition was that maybe the National Party just did a better job at addressing the issues that mattered to the voters.  The Labour Party didn’t do a bad job getting their messages out to the voters, and in a university town like Dunedin they had a huge social media campaign to connect which the students, but the message didn’t translate into votes.  The party that can address the concerns of the voters the best will win the election.  We have seen this around the world – and now have President Trump to show for it.

 

The question I posed though was “Why were there around the 1 million registered voters (over a quarter of all registered voters) that did not vote, however a high percentage of ex pat kiwis (which there are around 1 million) did vote?”  It was even proven that the expat votes actually changed the results in some seats.  The point I wanted to make was that it’s all very good having a view of something but it you do not ‘show up’ and participate then you are not being part of the decision.

The Politics Education for Students program in the UK ran a workshop for a group of 60 Year 13 students at St. Thomas More Catholic School in Bedford in January 2016.  They started with the premise that young people are not interested in politics.  The reasons for young voter disengagement – where it does happen – has little to do with political interest but instead, the flaws in our systems of government.  As a group the students and the team from PEFS began to break down the differences between “politics” and “government” as concepts and processes.   All of the students could identify issues that they were interested in and which they held opinions – student loans, crime, housing, jobs, defence, the economy – but were almost unanimous in citing the unrepresentativeness of politicians, the partisan nature of Parliament and the reputation of MPs in saying that they were unlikely to vote, despite their interest in these political issues. Governing had put them off politics.  At this stage, less than 30% of the students stated they were likely to vote in the next general election.

 

The participants broke off in to a student led game show task.  Students were presented with ten key political events of 2015 through a variety of pictures. As a group, students came to see how each event (whether it was Donald Trump’s remarks about London, the SNP surge in Scotland or the Paris attacks) had a direct causal and consequential link to young people.

 

The students realised that far from being “irrelevant” to the process of government, they were crucial in driving its agenda.  As the seminar progressed there was a greater understanding among them that if the young people wanted to change the make-up of Parliament, if they wanted to force the government to focus on “younger voter issues” or if they wanted a government made up from a wider socio-economic background then THEY would have to get involved. They would have to vote, stand for elections, sign petitions, join pressure groups, register with political parties and write to their MPs. In the end, it came down to the old Truman quote, “decisions are made by those who show up”.  Young people, if they wish to be counted and governed fairly, need to show up.  To some students, it hit them like a thunderbolt.

 

The same message applies in business too.  Sales are made by those that show up and buy the product or service and not just opine for them.  Company Boards are changed by shareholders voting, and by people standing for election to the Board.  Work place laws were (and are) changed by workers uniting for better conditions.  Don’t complain about the political environment, or the taxation framework if you’re not prepared to have your say as a voter, or take an active role in politics.

 

A few years ago, I made a couple of decisions with Harry Truman’s quote in mind.  The first was I became an Australian citizen which amongst other benefits meant I was entitled to vote in the country I lived and worked in.  I wanted to not only to voice an opinion but to participate in the decision.  The second decision was to join three not-for-profit Boards – one with a social justice cause, one that gave back to the industry I was working in, and one that’s cause was deeply personal to me.  These three areas were topics which I had a strong view, so to get involved meant I also got to shape the decisions.

So today when you are posting comments on Facebook or Twiiter, or arguing with a mate about the federal budget, or you’re complaining about something at work, remember; –

Decisions are made by those that show up.  Don’t ever forget you’re a citizen of this world.