The Changing Face of Political Conversation
People love to talk politics, even though it's supposedly one of those things we're taught to avoid with strangers. You know, talking religion, politics, and sex with strangers is somehow dangerous.
In the good old days, people would huddle around the pot-bellied stove and talk politics. I know of several places where you can still gather with a group to talk politics. Most of our communities and small towns have a group of seasoned citizens who regularly gather to discuss their solutions to the world's most vexing problems, political and otherwise.
A group gathers for coffee at the Frederick Coffee Company at East and Church; debate, harassment, and friendly chit-chat ensue until the cups are drained and the 60-90 minutes allocated expires.
A similar group meets in Brunswick over coffee at the Roy Rogers, and my infrequent trips there result in any and all manner of ideas, suggestions, demands, and advice. Rumor has it a group of wise Walkersvillagers gather on occasion at the feed store run by Burgess Ralph Whitmore, one of our more down-to-earth elected officials.
Advice doesn't just flow beside morning coffee, though. There are a number of venues around the county that feature opportunities to gather and chew the fat about the state of politics in Frederick.
One of my favorites occurs at the Shamrock Restaurant in Thurmont. A group meets for lunch every Friday (and has for more than 30 years), and the informal list of attendees reads like a who's who of county politics and business.
I try to talk less and listen more when I can find time to go there. Names like Bollinger, Hoke, Ashbury, Fitzgerald, Crum, Brosius, Eigenbrode, Trout, Simmons, Waltz, and Delauter, (to name just a few) all of whom have spent more time solving problems in Frederick than most of us have on the planet.
No, they're not always right. Not even close. But they do possess a unique and diverse set of opinions and experience, and it would be foolish to not listen to what they have to say.
Listening to what others say - it's a big aspect of public service. Finding ways to do that is a constant challenge, especially in an age where technology evolves so fast consumers can't keep pace.
The shoe leather route still works. The Fourth of July Party in the Park was a great venue to seek out opinions. In the stroll through a crowded Baker Park, dozens shared thoughts, opinions, and advice, all for free, and most unsolicited. Carnival season offers almost unlimited opportunities to interact with constituents, and plenty of chances for collecting opinions and voting advice.
Trips to the library (I go several times a month to feed a nasty habit for both fiction and non-fiction), the grocery store, the malls, or even the dry cleaner offer opportunities for political discussion.
The times, they are changing though. Political discussion is spreading to new and unusual venues. The most interesting are web forums, a sort of chat forum that allows someone to protect their identity while sharing their opinions in an unvarnished fashion.
The Frederick News Post, eager to seize on the Internet as an alternative to the old-fashioned newspaper, has created an excellent web forum. A cast of characters regularly cruises the site, leaping on threads (what we'd call separate conversations) to speak their piece.
There are hundreds of people who view these postings, but only dozens who regularly express themselves. The hottest topics are usually related to politics, things like development (most think there's been too much), President Bush (most don't care for him), the Board of County Commissioners (the same people who think there's been too much development like them), and more recently, the sheriff's decision to end secondary employment with uniform and marked car (mixed reaction).
Some of the posts are pretty rough, bordering on personal attacks. Former News Post columnist Joe Volz always had a problem with the secret identity thing. Joe felt that if someone were criticizing another, they ought to at least list their real identity. He was always roundly mocked for that opinion.
Recently, County Commissioner Kai Hagen has started his own forum site, one he established and controls. He felt that some of the anonymous posts were too personal, so on his site he has established two methods to control that. For one, he requires everyone who wants to post to pre-register using a valid email. For another, he expressly forbids personal attacks.
A group of FNP forum posters followed Kai, but interestingly, most of the real "regulars" at the FNP site have a problem with the email registration condition of Kai's new site. I read and post in both places, and I don't see as much issue dissension on Kai's site. It comes across a little more like "group-think," kind of like Kai and his supporters embrace the more cleaned-up online neighborhood than the more free-wheeling and in-your-face style of the News Post site.
I prefer the less structured approach, as the identity protection seems to bring out really lively political discussion.
Politicians will need to dial-up their knowledge of and comfort with blogs, forums, and other non-traditional forms of political communication to keep ahead of the curve and in touch with voter opinion.
That said, the cheeseburger at the Shamrock is delicious, although the regulars mostly eat fish because of dietary restrictions. While blog sites and on-line forums may be changing the face of political discussion, give me the old fashioned face-to-face any day. Better to look your advisor in the eye than to wonder what they meant in their digital rant!