Stop ignoring the problem and demand honor in political service

It must be strange to be president of the United States and have your obvious, common-sense observations ignored. 

President Barack Obama’s recent speech about America turning the page on cynical, special-interest politics holds truth relevant to Platte County. What the president is commenting on surfaces in our local elections for courthouse, city hall and school board posts.

Obama last week appealed that politics be rid of polarization and meanness, saying that those factors discourage people from participating in government by seeking office or serving on committees.

“Today, that kind of citizenship is threatened by a poisonous political climate that pushes people away from participating in our public life,” Obama added. “It turns folks off. It discourages them. It makes them cynical.

“And when that happens, more powerful and extreme voices fill the void.”

Obama obviously has Congress on his mind, as well as a presidential election campaign that grows ever more weird, cynical and sleazy. Yet he did make this speech before state lawmakers in Illinois, and much of what goes on in local government in all states is within a framework set by law enacted by state lawmakers. 

This is true in Missouri and our local communities. 

People elected to public office make a difference in our quality of life. Their decisions affect services we utilize such as law enforcement, roads, parks, water, sewers and planning for growth. 

How they conduct themselves also sets a tone.

The strident politics on the national level does reoccur at the local level. Hotspots that draw such attention are county commission seats, mayoral posts, Kansas City Council seats and seats in the Missouri General Assembly. Now and then, though, big money and negative, distorted campaign ads will appear even in races for city alderman posts or school board seats. 

Obama’s point has been made by others before, including me, that nasty politics keep many highly-qualified people from running for office. It’s not that we want our neighbors in Platte County to run for president, but we could use maximum talent to step forward for county and city offices. 

For that matter, we also need superior skills to apply for professional management jobs within the halls of government. When government seems twisted and surly, good people avoid rather than serve. 

Not all is totally grim. 

The good and sensible people who do serve hold the ship of public service together. I can think of various county commissioners and mayors who jumped from private life into local elected office and served wisely. They get a plaque as they leave office, maybe a souvenir gavel, and a round of applause from their fellow office holders. 

But the public rarely says thank you. Instead what is discussed most in the coffee shops and the news is conflict and confusion. 

Good government is rather quiet. Harsh politics in election campaigns or in debates over legislation make a lot of noise. 

News coverage of Obama’s thoughts on politics turning people away from civic service ran in a short story on an inside page of the newspaper where I saw it. He presented a clear problem but no one is listening. People are either locked into partisan warfare habits or ignoring politics and governing issues all together. 

If we were to stop people on city streets and ask them who governs at the courthouse or in their city hall, few would know the answers. Few would be aware of current issues and problems. 

Lots of people complain about government and politics. Very few people participate in the processes.

The answer always comes back to the same place. 

Voters must demand better of candidates and politics. They must study issues. They must throw negative attack ads that come in the mail in the trash, no matter which political party sends them. The mute button or channel changer should be hit when negative TV ads are playing.

Voters must demand honor in political service rather than meanness. This must occur at the local as well as the national level.
Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area, may be reached by e-mail at