Op-Ed: Are you a front porch politician?
by Mark Coleman
It’s a pleasant Sunday for May in Auburn, NY. A warm breeze tickles my skin as I sit on the front porch at my in-laws. I close my eyes and for a brief moment I feel my body relax, and then slouch. The pleasant sounds of kids playing the distance, birds chirping, and fragrant smells of flowers blooming are the signs of an emergent summer and further aid the calming effect of the warm breeze. I’m taken back to a feeling I often felt on a summer’s vacation laying on the beach in York, Maine. After a seven hour drive from New York the warm sun and sounds of the ocean can hypnotize a tired traveler. For many a summer I had fallen asleep at the beach, waking to the rising tide and cold surf teasing to pull me into the ocean, and regretting the nap because of a sunburn. But the intoxicating tranquility always seemed to override the punishment of the sun.
The screech of a tire woke me from my split second slumber, and memories of Maine faded. As I opened my eyes I realized my father in-law had sat down on the porch. I sat up, said hello. He said “it is a beautiful day”. I agreed in kind. My father in-law began telling a story, much like he always does, with a leading question. I have come to appreciate his deliberate fish hooking style of conversation. The lead question goes out; then eyebrows are raised by both parties; and then watch-out, “fish on” for the next thirty to sixty minutes. Shakespeare called this “Much Ado About Nothing”.
There typically is not a write or wrong answer to his question, rather the question offers the exclusive opportunity for him to initiate dialog on a political or other timely topic that has triggered his enthusiasm. The top of mind question this Sunday afternoon was on healthcare reform. The topic is not my core expertise, but of course I bit on the question, not to appeal to my father in-law, but because I want to learn what was on his mind on that particular issue of the day, and to consider an opinion other than my own as I continue to formulate my understanding of the subject.
My father in-law and I are separated by about four decades in age. Forty years! That’s more years than I am old! As one might imagine we should have widely different opinions on any subject, yet the reality is we really don’t. I have often reflected on this phenomenon and believe it is important and significant that the perceived knowledge-chasm and generational difference in what we believe is right or wrong, good or bad, and of value or not is really not always that divided.
As conversation on healthcare reform ensued we both listened to each other’s opinion. As we dove deeper into the topic, expressing our points-of-view, unraveling the Republican and Democrat agendas, and deconstructing the issue from all directions, it became apparent that we had clearly outlined exactly what the American Healthcare Reform Act should look like.
We did it! The new reform act was done, complete, equitable, and affordable. On this sunny Sunday afternoon we were diplomats, brave citizens taking charge, and working to cross the isle toward a more common purpose and union. There is no doubt we would be presenting the plan to a unified Congress and likely receive some award for civic leadership. We envisioned the millions of lives we would affect positively with our new plan. But…that is not exactly how the story goes. While our pontificating sounded good to us, our wives rolled their eyes. Of course there are always some fine tuning, “t’s” to cross and “i’s” to dot to get any plan approved! We had forgot to check in and get approval with our “Board of Directors”. The reality of our entertainment is that breeze had died down, the kids were getting tired, and the sun was fading behind the clouds. But we had served our role this fine Sunday as “Front Porch Politicians”.
Sunday is where Meet the Press offers fodder for front porch politicians to speak and shine. “Front porch politicians” are where real politicians solicit input from others to shape their point-of-view. It is also where everyday citizens engage in lively talk about a myriad of topics ranging from the role of Big Brother accessing Big Data, gun control, healthcare, social security, energy, offshoring versus onshoring of manufacturing, the economy, education, and social justice. The diversity of topics for front porch politicians is limitless. For those of us that are front porch politicians, we seemingly have an endless vocabulary, knowledge, and voracity to try and persuade others, if not ourselves, what we believe is right. One could argue that the court of public opinion is influenced by the media, but truly shaped by front porch politicians. Friends and colleagues tell me that they have had more stimulating and intelligent conversation as a front porch politician than they have had with “real” politicians. I believe this is because people feel comfortable on the front porch, much like we do on the beach in Maine where we are relaxed, aware, and open to new ideas.
But while the allure of politicking from the front porch may seem romantic like a Shakespearian play, the key question is whether it truly has any purpose to anyone outside of those who create its unique atmosphere or play a part in one of its scenes. The answer is that it can, and does, however this tends to be the exception rather than the rule. The trouble with front porch politicians, not all, but many including myself, is that we leave our passion, good ideas, grit, and wit on the porch. It stays there, like an old memory, waiting to be prompted for action the following week. I truly appreciate and look forward to the moments I can share with others on front porch politics. But as I have grown older, perhaps more understanding of the world around us, I have begun to question my role as a citizen, father, husband, friend, and community member.
Front porch politicians don’t do anyone any favors if their points-of-view are not carried through into their individual life, workplace, communities, or the real stage of politics. We are all entitled to our opinion, and through the act of front porch politics we love to share them. But let’s not let the effort stop there. The role of a citizen is multifaceted and there a number of ways in which we can engage with and empower each other to get more involved in our local communities, and also into the depths of the larger politics of the day which equally occupies the front porch of Main Street.
The accountability of everyday citizens and consumers is drawn into question when I think about front porch politicians. If you have ever cursed (under your breath of course!) a politician, a major corporation, a major hedge fund, or a member of your local school board, you are a front porch politician. The challenge as I see it for our generation is to have our passion and pride spillover into our daily lives, the work we do, the people we influence, and toward the type of world we visualize with good friends and family on the sanctuary of the porch.
The world is rapidly changing and there are no shortages of complex and converging issues now impacting every citizen. Pointing our finger at politicians and corporations does nothing but further polarize efforts for accepting change and working with it to create a world we value. The responsibility lies with us as individual citizens and consumers to reconcile our lifestyles, our choices, and our personal accountability to make the most of who we are toward who we can become. It is interesting that a synonym for porch is “entrance or entry”. Front porch politicians are open to dialog and feed off of each other as they debate and lay out a common agenda for the future. The porch is their common ground and entry for open dialog. Moving the debate to constructive dialog and then into everyday action are the first steps toward creating lasting positive change.
About the Author
Mark Coleman is the author of the book The Sustainability Generation: The Politics of Change and Why Personal Accountability is Essential NOW!, www.thesustainabilitygeneration.com. Follow Mark on Twitter: @TheSustainGen